‘It’s got to be one of his top games of his career’: Stevens leads Penn State past Minnesota
UNIVERSITY PARK – With 4:47 left in regulation, the first sellout crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center since 2011 grew restless, hoping there wouldn’t be another big lead squandered on Saturday. After watching Penn State cruise to a 36-22 lead at the end of the first half, Minnesota had stormed all the way back to cut the lead to 71-68.
The game was beginning to resemble Penn State’s second-half collapse against Ole Miss back in November where the Nittany Lions squandered a 22-point lead en route to their worst loss of the season.
“Those shared experiences are vital,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “We felt horrific after that loss…it was awful, but you can’t waste a failure, you can’t waste a setback.”
Penn State did not waste that failure on Saturday night, taking another step forward in what is shaping up to be a historic season for the program. Following the timeout, Minnesota center, Daniel Oturu, missed the front end of a one-and-one, leading to a Lamar Stevens 3-point play on the other end. It was Stevens’ biggest basket of the game on a night where he scored a career-high 33 points after being introduced as third player in Penn State history to score 2,000 career points during pregame.
“Lamar had that look in his eyes that a senior gets when you know, not that you’re running out of time but you’re running out of games,” Chambers said. “We needed every one of those points with the way Minnesota played…it’s got to be one of his top games of his career.”
“My mindset is just whatever it takes to win, “Stevens said. “I was just going to feel out the game. If I had to score I was going to score. If I had to get stops I was just going to try to get stops. That was my main focus.”
After the Stevens basket, Penn State’s defense locked in and forced a difficult missed shot by Oturu, which turned into a dagger 3 by Myles Dread to put Penn State back up by nine with just over three minutes left and send the sellout crowd into a frenzy. The Nittany Lions would not look back after that, holding on, 83-77, and extending its win streak to six games.
“In years before when I was younger, playing in a game like that, your mind would start racing,” Stevens said. “You’d kind of have a panic attack that you’re only up three by that point after being up almost 20 earlier, but now I just try to keep everybody composed. We know what we’re capable of and it’s really just about getting your mind back into focusing on what we need to do.”
It was only fitting that Stevens had one of the biggest games of his career on Penn State’s celebration of “Everyone is Awesome Day,” attracting an electric atmosphere at the Bryce Jordan Center where more than 70 organizations supporting individuals with special needs were involved with activities pregame, throughout the game and at halftime.
The first 2,000 fans in attendance received a copy of Stevens’ children’s book "Lamar's Climb – A Journey to Happy Valley," illustrating Stevens traveling across the commonwealth from his home and high school in Philadelphia to Penn State.
“It starts with Lamar as a freshman always being willing to do the charity events and being out there in the community and developing relationships,” Chambers said of the crowd. “If you don’t develop relationships with everyone that lives here in State College and the students, they’re not coming out, so I think you saw four years of building relationships and now people are really excited about what we’re doing.”
Penn State’s defense was impenetrable in the first half, holding the Golden Gophers to 30% shooting as a team, including 0-of-7 behind the arc, but Oturu (32 points) and Marcus Carr (20) led a second-half effort that saw the Gophers score 55 points and connect on eight 3-pointers.
The box score will say otherwise, but the defensive efforts from both Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar were invaluable, especially with Mike Watkins, Penn State’s best interior defender, in foul trouble all game.
Wheeler finished with just five points but once again set the tone defensively for Penn State, holding Carr to just two first-half points.
Harrar, on the other hand, scored a season-high eight points and flashed some nifty footwork on a few post moves that Penn State fans haven’t seen much of this year, but it was his defense that most impacted the game.
“I do think that Jamari and John did a really good job on these guys, frustrating them and taking them out of rhythm in certain situations,” Chambers said. “John’s ball screen defense was unbelievable for most of the game. In the second half, we kind of let Carr split it or get out of it and that’s why they got a couple of weak side 3s. Even though [Oturu] had 32 points, I thought he had to work for most of them. He had to earn those 32. He’s a big-time player…those guys did the best they could in that situation.”
Harrar was the primary defender on Oturu, the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer, for most of the game, and while Oturu scored 14 first half points, Harrar held him to just 5-of-12 shooting in the first 20 minutes, forcing Oturu to make several difficult shots through contact.
Because Watkins picked up two early fouls, Harrar needed to carry a bigger role than normal early on, but even in the second half, Chambers played Harrar for 33 minutes because of how difficult he made things for Oturu. Penn State outscored Minnesota by 23 points when Harrar was on the floor, the highest plus-minus of any player in the game. The two times that Harrar was subbed out for a quick breather, he exited to a loud ovation from the Penn State crowd.
With Myreon Jones out of the lineup on Saturday, Penn State also did not have its best perimeter shot creator on the floor.
Early on in the game it was evident that Penn State was struggling to generate easy perimeter offense without Jones in the lineup. In past seasons, not having a player like Jones might have caused Penn State to fall apart, but the fact that Penn State still held on speaks to the depth that Chambers has built in his ninth year at the helm and why Penn State is well-positioned to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
“It shows we can go to our bench and still produce,” Chambers said. [Jones] is a big loss, don’t get me wrong. The way he’s been playing all year long, really. He’s been very consistent on the offensive end…I thought guys were all stars in their roles.”
“We go through the scouting report and you’ve got to be willing to adjust to certain things, but they’ve got a lot of talent,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “They’ve done a really good job of recruiting guys…with Jones out they’re probably not as good of a team. They’re better with him in, but they still got a lot of nice pieces.”
With Michigan State losing to Michigan earlier today, Penn State moved up to No. 3 in the Big Ten standings.
The atmosphere in the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday was outstanding again, as it has been all season, which had not been the case at all in previous years.
“When you get buy-in, I mean Pat is a great coach,” Pitino said. “He’s got great talent and he’s getting those guys better. When you get buy-in from the community, that team can beat anybody, but you can’t do it in front of an empty arena…This is a tough place to play. Before it wasn’t.
Penn State is now 18-5 and playing with as much confidence as ever. The Nittany Lions still have eight more conference games left to play before the end of the regular season, but there is now a buzz around this program that has not existed since 2011.
“It’s a frightening thought that we can still get a lot better,” Chambers said. “There’s areas that we got to tighten up as we head down the home stretch here to really achieve some incredible goals that these guys want to do.”
Will Desautelle is a senior majoring in journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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