For Penn State men’s basketball coach Pat Chambers, there’s so much talk about the process that it seems like reaching that peak is far off. Regularly starting three freshmen and without a senior on the roster, the Nittany Lions are built for the future.
It doesn’t mean they can’t give us a glimpse into the bright years ahead every once in a while.
The team took to the Bryce Jordan Center on Tuesday for a clash with No. 21 Maryland. Penn State was coming off back-to-back losses to Indiana — an uphill battle on the road that could very well have ended with a Penn State victory — and Rutgers — a lackluster effort that may have been the result of a hard-played loss days prior against the Hoosiers.
The fact of the matter was, the team had won just once in five games since upsetting then No. 24 Minnesota. The story from Chambers had been the same throughout the season, including in the days leading up to the Terrapins matchup.
“If we play our game, we can beat anybody in this league,” Chambers said Monday. “We just need to be able to stay engaged for 40 minutes. If we can do that, we’ll be in position to play very good basketball [against Maryland].”
That’s confidence playing against a 20-3 program with the second best conference record in the Big Ten, and it paid off.
Penn State’s early start shooting helped the Nittany Lions go into the break leading 35-29. In previous games against the best of the conference, Penn State faded for a number of reasons — rough patches, fatigue, mental mistakes. But not Tuesday night as it held on despite late surges from the Terrapins for a 70-64 win.
Down the stretch, Penn State’s defense stepped up and shut down Maryland star Melo Trimble — giving up just one point to the guard in the second half. Toward the end of the game, defensive toughness — a quality that’s been lacking in recent matchups — may have been the greatest asset to securing this victory.
“We have a very good record when we hold teams under 70,” Chambers said. “It’s tough for the young guys to play with foul trouble, like Mike [Watkins], but they just battled through. That’s what it’s about. That’s a sign of a team that’s getting some good chemistry as we approach the end of February.”
Foul trouble could have cost Penn State the game with just two true big men available on the roster — both Watkins and Julian Moore had four fouls before the second half reached its midway point.
It didn’t deter the Nittany Lions, even when reduced to a small lineup without Watkins or Moore. Moore managed to make it through the game despite playing major minutes on the low post just one foul away from having to leave the game. Same for Watkins as he entered with less than four minutes to play and produced a clean defensive effort to close this one out.
The game down low may be an unknown commodity for the “undersized” Nittany Lions. Low post play was key in the first half with Watkins and Moore working the paint and drawing fouls. The pair combined for 13 points in the first 20 minutes — 11 of which came from the free throw line.
“I think their big guys played better than I was expecting,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I thought they were dominant. They were getting to the foul line in the very beginning of the game. That was probably the biggest surprise. They are good players. Don’t get me wrong they are good players, but they were dominating at the start physically.”
The big men weren’t the only two Nittany Lions getting themselves into foul trouble. Both Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens were one foul away from ejection, but the sheer depth of Penn State allowed for a smooth finish.
A number of Nittany Lions saw minutes, more so than usual with role players like Nazeer Bostick and Deividas Zemgulis getting more meaningful playing time in crucial situations. That was Penn State’s saving grace as it edged out its marquee win of the season.
“I think we have a really deep bench and coaches where they trust in a lot of players,” freshman forward Stevens said. “So having that deep bench, it doesn’t stop our game plan at all. We have guys on the bench that can come in, and they’ll still do what they’re supposed to do. Luckily we had guys that came in that made huge plays like Nazeer [Bostick] and Julian [Moore] and guys like that.”
For all of the talk about the struggles of youth, inexperience, and leadership, Penn State’s biggest performances this season tend to come from those that are still learning the college game.
A day after Chambers announced that Carr would be taking on a captain’s role as a freshman and with the success Watkins has had all season, the third in the first-year starting trio was bound to make some noise. Stevens, who’s had an impressive freshmen campaign in his own right, was coming off a performance against Rutgers plagued by inconsistencies from the field and problems getting on the court due to foul trouble.
His response in one of the biggest games of the year: to take over large stretches of action and come up one-point short of a career high.
Chambers went on to compare Stevens’ talents to that of the versatile alumnus Brandon Taylor, a star from last season who torched ranked opponents in the final games of his career on the way to major upsets. The freshman lived up to the comparison Tuesday night.
“We needed that tonight,” Chambers said. “We put the ball inside to him and he made some good decisions. He posted up and ran a couple iso’s. He did a nice job of playing patient and solid. It’s good to have that guy that we can put the ball inside to that’s engaged.”
The upset secured Penn State’s fourth-straight win at home against a ranked opponent, a program record, as well as the first win over the Terrapins since 1990.
At the end of the day, one game still isn’t going to change the team’s fortunes over the course of a season. It’s still a longshot for any tournament appearance and there may be tougher tests to come in the final games, but night’s like Tuesday keep in perspective that there is so much to look forward to in the coming years.
“So we just have to keep getting better, and good things are going to happen to us,” Chambers said. “Success is going to come.”