The last time Penn State brought a game into the Palestra, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo ended up apologizing to the building, the Palestra itself, for how his team had performed.
No apologies were offered Saturday afternoon. None would have been accepted. Penn State and Iowa delivered the goods, supplying about as good as a basketball game gets in the regular season. Yes, it was dripping hot, sweating hot, smelly hot, sold-out hot. Officially over 80 degrees courtside, after somebody apparently had measured. Penn State coach Pat Chambers said, no way -- 120 degrees.
“My head is still spinning," said Chambers, who practically grew up in the building, the younger brother of a Penn football player and then a Penn point guard. He must have a new favorite memory. “I think that was just incredible.”
Maybe if karma favored the side of the squad with the most locals, that was the Nittany Lions, who lived up to their 21st national ranking, getting past 23rd-ranked Iowa, 89-86.
“This is my city," Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, a Roman Catholic High graduate, yelled at the camera after he topped a frustrating foul-plagued afternoon with a big bucket, and later noted that he still has not lost in here, high school or college.
“Everyone’s texting me that," said his mother, Kim, about his words to the camera, after her son gave her a hug and stopped for a Big Ten Network interview.
Let’s pause to point out that anybody who said Penn State couldn’t get it going with Philly kids, this team has their answer. Stevens is the key guy. Philly guy Mike Watkins the defensive anchor. Philly guy Izaiah Brockington the X-factor sixth man, who topped the reasons Penn State survived this one, with 23 points off the bench. John Harrar, Delco guy, came off the bench for important minutes and big rebounds after Watkins hit foul trouble. Freshman Seth Lundy, another Roman graduate, had a key offensive stretch to keep his team above water.
If you want to add to the narrative to say this particular Penn State team plays with a kind of Philly edge, who’s going to argue? Penn State didn’t outshoot Iowa or outrebound the Hawkeyes or even necessarily outhustle them. Everybody was getting after it. But Penn State could get to more loose balls, or tip a pass and get to it, with 11 steals to 4 for Iowa, 20 points off turnovers to 7 for Iowa.
The steals were spread down the lineup, with nobody having more than two, but eight Penn State players getting at least one. When some shots fell late, Penn State had the W. Pretty good feat on a day Iowa’s Luke Garza did his thing inside for 34 points and teammates Joe Wieskamp and Joe Toussaint combined for 41.
It wasn’t just the building, pointed out Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, Philly guy deluxe, who played his own college games right here for Penn -- but rarely, even by his own memory, in this kind of heat.
“Their guys come out with energy no matter where they play," McCaffery said, meaning that as full praise for Penn State’s 12-2 team.
There’s no doubt the deeper team took it in the end. Asked about Brockington, Iowa’s coach noted that his team, now 10-4, hadn’t clamped down during an important stretch, as Penn State struggled to make shots, that Brockington is the type to “put his head down and go until he hits a wall," and Iowa wasn’t able to put one in front of him.
The Archbishop Ryan graduate had played here before, but had never won in the building in the Catholic League playoffs. Call the St. Bonaventure transfer a late bloomer, except it was obvious by the end of his Ryan senior season that Brockington was a guy you’d want for your college ball team. His energy was already baked in, even when he was the star.
“He is such a spark off the bench," Chambers said later. “I really believe he’s still trying to prove himself, that he’s worthy of playing in the Big Ten, so he comes into practice trying to prove he is a Big Ten basketball player, that he is a high-level player. So it’s almost like he’s trying to earn a scholarship. And I’m not going to tell him that he has one.”
A memorable day. Yes, Penn State had the home crowd, a big factor. By the way, Penn State could have turned the extra canned noise blasting over the sound system down a bit, trusting their fans to provide all necessary noise, as this building usually expects. But that was it for complaints. There was another game to play Saturday night -- merely Penn-Princeton. You wonder if a Penn player out for early warm-ups realized that the man tossing a rebound back to him was Penn State’s head coach.
“It’s not as hot when everyone leaves," noted a Penn State writer an hour after it was over.