STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- We don’t see the half of it. A shot goes up in the last 30 seconds and you don’t think the odds could be too good of its falling, focusing on how Penn State hadn’t made a three-pointer the entire second half, and Myles Dread, a willing shooter, had been shooting just as well as his Nittany Lions teammates.
“My job is to shoot the ball," Dread said later. “If I don’t shoot it, I don’t play.”
The part the rest of us hadn’t seen: a practice gym last summer, a graduate assistant assigned to work with Dread. At least 1,000 shots this summer, Dread said -- “that specific shot.”
It fell when it had to, yet Dread noted how “we didn’t allow us to get happy," since what would have been a devastating loss Wednesday night turned into a big-time win -- if they could defend successfully for one possession.
“We knew the last stop was more important than the shot," Dread said.
Call that a tie, since Penn State needed both, and when the Nittany Lions double-covered the Rutgers shooter they didn’t want to shoot, and still got over to contest the Rutgers player with the best look … final score: Penn State 65, Rutgers 64.
Just another night in the Big Ten.
“We were in a storm," Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers said of the second half. “Man, were we in a storm.”
Maybe this game was a metaphor for Penn State’s season. An impressive first half, a top 10 kind of half. Then holding on for dear life against a Rutgers team that needed this even more than Penn State.
Also, even the last bucket had Philly imprints all over it, even if a Philly kid didn’t take the shot. Chambers noted the screen set by John Harrar, a Strath Haven High graduate who tells the faithful he is from “Delco” on Penn State’s big screen pregame introductions.
The pass, Chambers also noted, was made by Izaiah Brockington. Chambers didn’t add, “Archbishop Ryan grad," but he could have. Also, the play was set up for PSU go-to man Lamar Stevens, Roman Catholic High grad, with the understanding that Stevens could be too well blanketed to stay as the prime option.
Stevens was worn down by the end, crucial free throws even finding the rim. But he’s the guy up here, on track to become Penn State’s all-time leading scorer. No chance this team is 21-7 and ranked 16th -- even after losses to Illinois and at Indiana just before Rutgers showed up -- if Stevens hadn’t stuck around for his senior year. Also, look at the last Rutgers shot that didn’t fall, and notice it was Stevens contesting it.
Add in Seth Lundy, the freshman from Roman Catholic now starting, who had big early threes, and big Mike Watkins from Southwest Philly, who basically splits the low post position with Harrar, and the Philly region provided 48 of Penn State’s 65 points, led by Brockington’s 16 off the bench, which might have been higher except he had to take a break with a cramp as Rutgers got back into the game.
The Philly guys also had 30 of Penn State’s 40 rebounds.
I never bought the old adage that Penn State couldn’t get Philly guys to go up and play hoops. Philly guys go everywhere to play hoops. Cow towns in Texas. Small towns in the Southeastern Conference. Not Penn State?
Now, getting enough people to the Bryce Jordan Center to make it a place you want to play … a different and very real issue, since those football crowds come from all over the state.
Roaming the concourse at halftime, asking adults how far they’ve come, and how often …
“An hour … six games a year.”
“A mile and a half … yeah, a lot. Forever.”
“Altoona, three or four times a year.”
“An hour and 15 minutes … first time. My son looked it up and there were some tickets left."
A Wednesday night in February isn’t the same as a fall Saturday. The crowd was 8,345 and plenty loud. Nothing wrong with it. Even plenty of students still probably exhausted from Thon showed up.
Wednesday wasn’t a great night for Stevens. He had more turnovers than field goals. All the Rutgers defensive attention had its impact. Yet when Rutgers closed a lead that had once been 40-19 down to 51-50, Stevens was the guy who kept things afloat, hitting a tough jumper and driving for another hoop. His bounce pass to Harrar for a dunk upped the lead to 59-50.
“He’s a problem," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said later.
Rutgers kept coming, though. Pikiell was proud of his team’s resilience, except he didn’t like the defense on the last Penn State shot.
“You’ve got to get out and contend," Pikiell said.
You want to know why this turned out to be such a battle? How many teams are in the top half of the Big Ten in field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, and turnover margin? Only two, Penn State and Rutgers. Add in three-point-shooting percentage and three-point-percentage defense. Now, it’s only Penn State. (Rutgers is actually last in three-point percentage.)
Here’s one simple way to look at it. Do the Nittany Lions have the best player on the court? Often, they do. Stevens is that kind of player, fourth-leading scorer in the league.
Second best? Sometimes.
Fourth? Not always.
Fifth? A lot.
Here’s the point. If you don’t have a Stevens -- if he had moved on, ready to play professionally -- then all the guys behind him would have needed to take a bigger role. It just wouldn’t fit together so easily. Even those sixth, seventh, eighth best -- different players on different nights, by the way -- wouldn’t be usually, definitely, always. More like, often, usually and sometimes. That’s a big difference.
“This team still can get better," Chambers said afterward, noting a second-half comeback at Indiana that fell short and Wednesday’s high-energy first half. “If you can put those two halves together, that’s the vision I have for Penn State basketball and this group.”
“It took a lot of courage to want to take that shot," Chambers said of Dread’s shot.
Chambers is a Delco guy himself, and a former Herb Magee point guard back when Jefferson was Philadelphia Textile. Listening to him postgame, you get reminders that he also used to be Jay Wright’s top assistant, when Villanova got to the Final Four in 2009.
Of holding steady …
“Those were about attitude," Chambers said. “Next play. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Play to win. We have more to give. Some of the phrases I may have said in those huddles. They believed in that, and they stuck to that.
"It’s always a challenge when a team’s going on a massive run like that. How do you stop it? You get to the free-throw line. Now, you’re not making free throws. There’s some challenges there, but me being calm and poised helps the team, rather than compounding the problem, screaming and yelling. We’ll worry about the mistakes on film tomorrow.”
The expectations have changed for this group, and so have the stakes. In this season where any ranked team can beat any other, and lose to plenty of unranked teams, Penn State has shown it belongs with the ranked teams capable of dreaming big dreams.
The players will tell you this … they’ve put in the work. We don’t see the half of it.