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Penn State Hoops’ Deflating Loss Doesn’t Overshadow Importance Of Senior Leaders

Penn State men’s basketball’s Senior Night looked like it was off to a great start when Mike Watkins opened things up with an alley-oop finish on a feed from Jamari Wheeler. From there, the Nittany Lions nailed 10 threes in the first half and took a 15-point lead into the locker room.

Things changed quickly, though, as Penn State’s offense came to a screeching halt and couldn’t keep pace with Tom Izzo’s squad in the final minutes.

What was shaping up to be a perfect Senior Night for a historic Nittany Lion squad had suddenly become a somewhat deflating moment. Despite the loss, Pat Chambers made sure to explain just how important Penn State’s seniors — namely Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins — are to his program.

“I’m incredibly grateful for what these seniors have accomplished in their careers,” Chambers said. “Mike Watkins staying the course when he easily could’ve left. Lamar Stevens’ powerful statement last summer to stay. We’re not in a position to fight for a championship, which I haven’t done in my tenure, without those guys.”

Chambers’ remarks help put into perspective just how far this team has come. While four losses in the last five games is nothing to be thrilled about, Penn State is still ranked No. 20 in the AP poll and has a strong chance at fighting for a Big Ten Championship. That’s all mentioned before even considering the trip the Nittany Lions await to the NCAA Tournament, a place Penn State hasn’t been since 2011.

There’s no arguing that Stevens and Watkins are two of the biggest reasons why Penn State is in this uncharted territory. The latter of the pair has certainly had his ups and downs and Happy Valley, but Watkins has managed to make big plays throughout his career, including this season.

The senior forward has been asked to come off the bench of late, but that hasn’t changed his output. Watkins has become a defensive monster in his final season in the blue and white, and his willingness to hustle on both ends of the floor has been key for the Nittany Lions.

On Tuesday night, Chambers gave the senior one last chance to start in front of the his home crowd.

“He’s been here five years, I thought he deserved to hear his name one last time,” Chambers said.

Stevens, on the other hand, will leave Penn State as one of the greatest players to ever come through the program. He’s now just 25 points away from breaking Talor Battle’s all-time scoring record, and will need to have a few big-time offensive performances left in him for tournament games down the road.

Aside from the scoring record, Stevens has also managed to leave his mark on the Penn State community in a way that not many other basketball players have. He’s managed to start in every single game of his Nittany Lion career and has become a fan favorite over that time. Whether it’s staying late after games to sign autographs, participating in various community service events, or being the face of this team for two full seasons, Stevens’ impact on the program will be felt for a long time after he’s gone.

When all five graduating seniors were honored after Tuesday night’s game, Stevens made sure to say a few words to the fans who remained in attendance.

While a loss isn’t the way anyone wants to end their career in a home arena, the fact that the Nittany Lions were even playing in a high-profile Big Ten game in March itself is a testament to how much things have changed. There were some ugly times in both Stevens’ and Watkins’ Penn State careers, but it seems that this year has made it all worth it for both of them.

Along with the wins and the high ranking, Penn State basketball has brought in an unprecedented amount of support from the community. The Nittany Lions sold out the BJC for the first time since 2011 for their game against Minnesota a few weeks ago, and they’ve consistently managed to grow huge crowds that fill deep into the upper deck (even on weeknights).

None of those exciting things happen without the culture that Chambers, Stevens, and Watkins have been able to develop. That’s something that didn’t go loss on John Harrar after Tuesday night’s game.

“I remember, I think it was like five or four minutes left and we went down two points and the crowd just brought life into us,” Harrar said. “We get that crowd because of what Lamar [Stevens] and Mike [Watkins] did. We wouldn’t have that crowd if we didn’t have those seniors lead us to our record now and put so much faith into this program from the Penn State community.”

With a battle ahead in the Big Ten Tournament and the Big Dance after that, Chambers is eternally grateful to the two Philadelphia natives that he recruited to come to Happy Valley so long ago.

“In a nutshell: gratitude and love,” Chambers said. “I’m so thankful, so appreciative of their loyalty and commitment to me, the staff, and this university.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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