Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports.
By David Cordova
It’s always refreshing when a team that many don’t expect to win anything, takes it all. Or a team that got snubbed from one tournament wins another. All in all, a win is a win, and a championship is a championship. The latter is something that can’t be taken away from a team.
That fact can be said about the Penn State Nittany Lions. This year, they dealt highs and lows and it all led to a championship. That title was the one called the NIT (National Invitation Tournament), which they won tonight at Madison Square Garden, which they won convincingly, 82-66, over Utah. This win finishes their season at 26-13.
“What an incredible year, you know, 26 wins, and to finish on such a high note for this team and staff and program, credit goes to these guys,” said Penn State head coach Pat Chambers. “We had a foreign tour. We’ve been gone for a long time. There’s so much love in our locker room and within the program in general, and that’s why you’re able to rebound from not hearing your name on Selection Sunday.”
Early on, Penn State started off non-conference play with an 11-3 record and then went 9-9 record in Big Ten Conference play. They played so well that many thought they would have gotten a bid to the NCAA Tournament, as they made it to the conference semifinals, losing to Purdue.
Unfortunately, they would not be given a bid to the Big Dance. But they did get accepted to the NIT, which gave them a chance to continue to play for a title. In the process, they defeated Notre Dame, in-state rival Temple, and Mississippi State in the semifinals to get a date with Utah.
Throughout most of the game, they stayed close with the Utes, until they started to pull away in the third quarter, as they lead by eleven, 56-45, with 2:08 to go, which would be a lead that they would never relinquish, as they would go on to be crowned champions, winning their first NIT title since 2009.
The key to the Nittany Lions success this season was the play of two of their sophomores in guard Tony Carr and forward Lamar Stevens and senior guard Shep Garner, all of whom attended Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia and all of whom have scored 1,000 points in a Penn State uniform.
“It feels great. It feels great to know that we all come from the same place and we end up playing together in college. We did something special. You know, it’s a great team. It’s a great team. It’s the most connected team I’ve ever been a part of. You know, this group of guys, I wouldn’t pick another group of guys to do it with, another coaching staff. This is definitely special,” said Garner.
Stevens, who averaged 19.2 points per game in Penn State’s tournament run won Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament, in addition to scoring his 1,000th point with 3:09 to go in the first quarter. When asked about the significance of achieving that feat in a historic venue such as Madison Square Garden, he replied, “It was a great feeling, you know. It was just better winning this championship, though. It’s a great accolade, but I’d much rather have a championship any day.”
Another thing to look at is the fact that this NIT title game brought out an attendance record 11,175 fans, the majority of them from Penn State, which is the best crowd for a NIT game since 2005.
After having a struggling record for most of Chambers’ seven years as head coach, it seems as if the Nittany Lions have now turned the corner. “I think we do, set the standard.” said Garner when asked if he felt if this year team has set the foundation going forward for the future, “We preach, you know defend and rebound, but now we have something that we can always go to, you know, to say, we won something, we’re champions.”
This year’s team will lose Garner and forward Julian Moore to graduation, but will return Carr, Stevens, junior guard Josh Reaves and sophomore forward Mike Watkins, which will form a great nucleus for the Nittany Lions going forward. And who knows, maybe next season, Penn State may just make the NCAA Tournament.
Tonight, Chambers & Co. made a statement to the nation, that they will be a force to be reckoned with next season. “I think we’ve proven to a lot of people across the country that Penn State basketball is here to stay. It’s not just a stepping stone, it’s a destination.”