While they were going to be overshadowed by college football all day, the Nittany Lion basketball team had an important opportunity to show tangible progress in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. In their first true road game of the season, the Lions came to the nation's capital as 2.5-point underdogs to George Washington.
Penn State started strong early and jumped out to a 16-8 lead at the under-12 media timeout. They took advantage of a Colonials team that was adjusting to the surprising absence of Yuta Watanabe. The junior, who averages 13.4 points per game, suffered a lower leg injury in practice that forced him to sit out today's game.
However, if there's one thing this PSU team has proven it can do consistently, it's miss open shots. The Lions went on another ugly dry spell to end the first half that flipped an 8-point lead into a 10-point deficit. Over the course of nine game minutes, the Lions only scored two points as George Washington built a 32-23 halftime lead. Penn State turned it over nine times in the first half.
In an effort to raise the Lions' energy level on the floor, Pat Chambers inserted Josh Reaves into the lineup to start the second period. Reaves, a native of the Washington, D.C. area, was playing in front of family and friends, and it seemed to make a difference in his performance. His display was an obvious reminder of what PSU had been sorely missing in their first five games.
Reaves didn't score a lot of points, but his ability to penetrate and find the open man lead to scoring opportunities, while his seven defensive rebounds helped plug one of this team's recurring weaknesses. He was also a menace at the top of PSU's press that forced 15 George Washington turnovers. His contributions highlighted a 29-10 surge by the Nittany Lions to take a 52-42 lead midway through the second period.
Penn State couldn't keep their foot on the gas and put the game away, as a quick 11-2 spurt from the Colonials cut PSU's lead to one. While the momentum was shifting and the pressure mounting, the Lions refused to give up their lead. Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens lead the offense the rest of the way, and Penn State was 9 of 10 at the foul line down the stretch to clinch a 74-68 win.
For those of us who have been patiently waiting for the Shep Garner-Tony Carr-Josh Reaves-Lamar Stevens-Mike Watkins lineup, we finally got to see that combo in all of its potential. If you didn't get to see the game, those five played about eight of the game's final 11 minutes to seal the deal for the Nittany Lions. Only a minor injury to Reaves forced Chambers to sub in Banks for those other three minutes during that stretch.
It's too early to comment on the significance of this win, but ending an opponent's 27-game non-conference home winning streak can only be considered a good thing. The Nittany Lions have now won two in a row with a favorable three game home stand next on the schedule.
Coming into this game, there was great concern about Penn State's ability to compete with a taller George Washington team on the glass. Watanabe's unexpected absence certainly helped, but I don't think anyone foresaw the Lions winning the battle on the boards. Penn State's rebounding edge ultimately was the difference in the game.
The Lions' stellar free throw shooting has proven to be one of this team's surprising strengths in the early going. Penn State converted 19 of 22 from the foul line in this game. Through the first seven games, they are shooting 81.8% as a team from the charity stripe. If only that shooting touch could translate to their actual shooting percentages...
- Shep Garner - Shep has not been shooting the ball well early and those struggles continued in this game. He did come up with a big three-pointer down the stretch and finished with 10 points and two assists, but the most experienced scorer this team has continued to disappear for long stretches.
- Mike Watkins - In his best game on the young season, Watkins simply dominated in the paint for the Lions. He finished with 20 points on 7-14 shooting, eight rebounds, four blocks, a steal and an assist. He was also reliable at the foul line (6-7) and logged a season-high 31 minutes with zero fouls.
- Tony Carr - Carr didn't have a great shooting game either, but some last minute free throws gave him 12 points total for the game. That's his seventh straight double-digit scoring game to start his career. He also corralled six rebounds and dished out five assists in 35 minutes. Yes, he is only a true freshman.
- Lamar Stevens - Stevens got off to a slow start in the first half with only two points and two fouls at the break, but he was able to operate in the mid-range whenever George Washington's went zone. He helped carry PSU's offense in the second half and finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
- Josh Reaves - You really have to watch Josh Reaves to appreciate his impact on the floor. The differences he makes don't show in traditional box scores. You can't win any MVP awards with just two points, but his eight rebounds were huge. He also had two assists and two steals.
- Payton Banks - Banks didn't play as much in the second half since Reaves and Stevens were excelling. He took a season-low four field goal attempts for three points and committed two unforced traveling violations. Not the best game from the junior captain, but the Lions didn't need him today.
- Terrence Samuel - Samuel didn't have a huge role in this game. He only scored two points on three shots in 13 minutes.
- Julian Moore - Moore converted two nice buckets while the Lions jumped out to an early lead, but he continues to commit maddening fouls. With Watkins dominating, he only played 20 seconds in the second period. Four rebounds in eight minutes is good, but three fouls is bad.
- Davis Zemgulis - Unfortunately Zemgulis continued to struggle before he left the game near the end of the first half with an ankle sprain. He contributed to the Lions lengthy scoring drought in the first half after missing two open looks from the perimeter. While he connected on his first attempt, the Lions need the sophomore's unorthodox shot to be more consistent. No word yet on how long he'll be expected out with another injury.