It wasn’t the tournament game that Penn State wanted to be in, but the Nittany Lions tipped things off against Temple in the opening round of NIT play in Happy Valley.
The in-state rivals have some bad blood between each other, but the game mostly consisted of sloppy, uninspired play for the first 35 minutes.
Temple jumped out to a 13-4 lead in the first quarter before Penn State responded on an 8-3 run to trail 16-12 at the end of the quarter. The poor Nittany Lion play continued in the second quarter as Penn State went to the locker room down five at the break.
The third quarter seemed to continue to go Temple’s way. The Owls got up to their largest lead, 44-33, with just under four minutes to play in the third quarter. From there, Temple was outscored 30-13 over the final 12+ minutes and Penn State pulled out a remarkable 63-57 victory. Junior guard Josh Reaves led all scores with 19 points, while Temple was paced by junior guard Shizz Alston’s 15 points. First Team All-Big Ten Tony Carr was held to just 2 points on 1-12 shooting.
Let’s take a look at what we can learn from tonight’s victory.
What We Learned
It Is Still Hard To Know How Seriously Penn State Is Taking The NIT
I know it is weird to start off a “what we learned” with an unknown, but this was a bizarre game of basketball.
The disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament seemed to hang over Penn State throughout most of the game. The Nittany Lions didn’t seem to fully wake up and compete until the last quarter. If not for some early play from Reaves, it could have gotten real ugly for coach Pat Chambers and company.
A telling play came early on when Tony Carr didn’t appear to go hard after an inbound pass and was beaten to the ball that led to a breakaway dunk for Temple. Plays like that were littered throughout the first half, and it seemed like Penn State was destined for a first-round exit.
Still, with around five minutes to play, Penn State turned things on. Trailing by six, Penn State turned up the intensity, hit some three’s, got the crowd involved and outscored Temple 15-3 to close the game.
It was an incredible turnaround for a team that showed little interest throughout the game. A similar interest level early against Notre Dame in South Bend won’t end with the same result. Here’s hoping Penn State will come out with more intensity in their second-round matchup. For a team that is still pretty young, a deep run in the NIT could be an impactful building block for next season.
Penn State’s Defense Comes Through
The Nittany Lions had a poor defensive third quarter, but it’s ability to get stops in key stretches in the first and fourth quarter led them to a victory tonight.
In the first, Penn State was in danger of letting things get out of hand, trailing 13-4. The Nittany Lions dug in and allowed just three points on 1-5 shooting with a turnover to Temple. This, coupled with eight points from Penn State, kept the Nittany Lions afloat at the end of the period.
The fourth quarter was even more impressive. The Nittany Lions trailed 54-48 with under four minutes to play, and did not allow another point until a meaningless three with nine seconds remaining. During that stretch of play Temple was 1-7 from the field with two turnovers.
Penn State is no. 21 on KenPom on defense for the season. Along with the play of Tony Carr, it is their identity. Some strong stretches of defensive play tonight was enough to overcome a difficult game against Temple.
The Nittany Lions Can Win Without Tony Carr
Another surprising feature of tonight’s game was that Penn State was able to overcome the worst game of Tony Carr’s season. The sophomore point guard didn’t score until midway through the fourth quarter. That amounted to his point total for the night. Carr did dish out five assists and collect six rebounds, but Penn State’s ability to claw back without the heroics of Carr was impressive the watch.
Alongside the play of Josh Reaves, Shep Garner hit two gigantic three-pointers late in the fourth quarter to take the lead. Penn State also had 10 points apiece from Lamar Stevens and Julian Moore.
It isn’t a blueprint for success, but it was interesting to see Penn State’s supporting cast take the lead on a night when its star struggled. Most of these players will return next year, so tonight’s performance could give them more confidence.
It is hard to judge this one from the Nittany Lions tonight. Not many teams are excited to go out and compete in the NIT, and Penn State did not look like one tonight through three quarters. Still, solid defensive effort and scoring from supporting cast members were enough to advance Penn State to the next round.
Next up is the no. 1 seed Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday at noon EST.