Young Penn State Basketball Thrives At Madison Square Garden
“There’s no doubt, if you’re not nervous coming into this game, to be playing at The Garden, there’s something wrong with you,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said following his team’s 92-76 win over St. John’s on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
After getting off to a slow start, Penn State found its groove midway through the first half. The Nittany Lions struggled from the field in the early going, but managed to keep the Red Storm within seven until the shots started to fall.
Back-to-back three’s from Shep Garner and Payton Banks kick-started a 35-5 run to end the half and blow the game wide open for the Nittany Lions. After a slow start, it was all about finding their game and settling into the moment.
“It was a great run,” junior guard Shep Garner said. “We’ve been working on our habits all week, so a lot of our good habits were shown in that run. That was a pivotal part of the game and that got us the lead.”
The run was a turning point in the game for Penn State, but for all the points it put up to end the half, the defense was crucial in getting the offense into transition.
“I’d like to think our defense dictated our offense today,” Chambers said.
Scoring 21 points off turnovers and nine points on the fastbreak, Chambers’ new up-tempo offense was clicking against St. John’s. The pace and efficiency of the offense helped Penn State put up a season-high 92 points and reach Chambers’ goal of 80 points a game for the fourth time this season and first time since a mid-November win over Grand Canyon.
The talk prior to the season has been about the freshman recruiting class and it’s been all about the Nittany Lions’ youth since the opening game. But even in the big moment at The World’s Most Famous Arena, Penn State’s young team shined.
The top performer among freshmen tonight, 6’9 redshirt forward Mike Watkins. Watkins finished the game with 15 points and 13 rebounds for his third double-double of the season second in a row. The first-year starter is making his presence known around the rim — his three blocks today helped him rise to No. 2 in the nation in total blocks this season with 40.
“When [Watkins] is engaged, he gets us going,” Chambers said. “When Mike brings that juice, that energy, and that passion, he’s protecting the paint, he’s protecting the rim. It only says three blocks, but there’s a lot a more altered for sure. And he gets us going, he gets us out in the breaks so we can get easy baskets.”
With such a young team, talk has been about getting these guys important experiences. Whether that’s developing them with a tough non-conference schedule or scheduling them games at The Garden, Chambers has done that and he’s excited to continue to push his guys through these experiences.
“There’s something about this place,” Chambers said. “Two years in a row, I’ve gotten my team back here. And now, next year, the Big Ten tournament is here so we’re going to be here for three straight years, which is really great for the Big Ten and for our program.”