Penn State should know better than almost any other Big Ten program that you can’t take winning on the road for granted. That’s what made Saturday afternoon’s victory at Illinois all the more special. It also marked the second straight win for the Lions since they slipped up against Rutgers at home. It’s safe to say that Pat Chambers has been able to move the team past that hiccup.
Let’s check in with our stable of basketball writers to see how they feel about the big win.
It was great to see Payton Banks get back on track in Champaign, tying a career high in points and sparking a surge late in the first half to provide some separation. Still, the story has to be the excellent play of the freshmen after they had their own mid-season struggles. Mike Watkins dribbling into the paint, Lamar Stevens knocking down mid-range jumpers with ease, and Tony Carr with some spectacular finishes in the paint had me constantly reassessing who was my favorite freshman to watch. It's a great problem to have. Despite allowing Illinois to crawl back within striking distance in the second half, Penn State held on for an important road win. Rarely have I watched a Penn State team play on the road in the Big Ten and felt so confident that they would come away with the win.
The issues that have plagued the Nittany Lions showed up again in this contest, namely the inability to play with a big lead and the inability to break the full-court press. However, the same things that show you how good this team can be also showed up in this game, namely the ability to not blow the lead and end up losing this game, and the play of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins. Also, this was a reminder to everyone that the minute you count out Shep Garner or Payton Banks, one of them comes on strong to take over a game and keep the Nittany Lions well within reach. I don't want to jump the gun here, but we may have seen a preview of how good this team can really be, and we may not need to wait for next season to experience it.
Lastly, one thing that has been overshadowed with Garner is that he's been very Josh Reaves-esque in the past few games. On Saturday, he had three points, four rebounds, two assists, and two steals. That falls through the cracks because points aren't in the double digits, but that's a very even stat line. And the reality of the matter here is that we don't need Garner to take the scoring load anymore. This type of performance might be more important down the stretch.
Did we just see Penn State's best offensive performance of the year? I think we did thanks to a couple of incredible performances from Payton Banks and Lamar Stevens. Banks was impressive with his career-high-matching 24 points, and not just because he knocked down half of his six three-point attempts. The junior from Orange County was surprisingly aggressive off the bounce, and it paid off to the tune of five two-point buckets and five three throws. The Penn State offense will only be more dynamic going forward if this version of Banks shows up more often.
It was also great to see Lamar Stevens have a second straight 20-point game. He's now reached the plateau in three of his last four games and appears much more confident in his jump shot than he did before this stretch. If opponents have to respect Stevens on the perimeter, he's only going to have an easier time blowing past defenders when he needs to.
With the way these last two games have gone, there's a real possibility that the Lions can finish Big Ten play above .500 for the first time since 2009. And there's still room on the bandwagon!