A comeback fueled by Mike Watkins' 17-point, 15-rebound effort fell short as Pitt defeated Penn State 81-73 in the Never Forget Classic. It was nearly one to forget for the Nittany Lions, who trailed by as many as 24 in the first half, but they re-grouped at the break to make the game competitive down the stretch. Sheldon Jeter's corner three with less then two minutes to play drove the dagger into the kickstarted hearts of PSU faithful, and wrapped up a game that sees Penn State fall to 6-5 on the year.
Michael Young was dominant for the Panthers, pouring in a game-high 29 points with 11-14 shooting at the free-throw line. Pitt dominated the glass with nine offensive rebounds in the first half, adding to Penn State's offensive misery and building an insurmountable 20-point halftime lead. The Lions did themselves no favors with just seven first-half field goals and nine turnovers. It was a continuation of the disjointed and ugly approach they seemingly adopted in the second half of their loss to George Mason on Wednesday night.
Whatever Pat Chambers said or did at halftime worked to great effect, but it was still too little too late. Watkins did most of his damage against a smaller Pitt frontcourt in the second half with 13 points and 13 boards, and Tony Carr salvaged what was a dreadful first half performance with 12 points in the final 20 minutes. Their fellow freshman standout Lamar Stevens was ineffective on 1-10 shooting, but did add a team-high five assists.
Penn State has been a poor rebounding team all season, which makes sense considering the lack of large men they have on the roster. But today's comeback was manufactured on the glass, where they pulled together to score 16 second-chance points on 11 offensive boards. That's the scrappy play this team will need in order to win games in the Big Ten, because this team cannot shoot well enough to keep up with most high-major teams. Payton Banks once again acquitted himself well from beyond the arc on 3-6 shooting, but otherwise it was another brickfest in Brick City.
To Pitt's deserved credit, they played excellent defense in the first half. Every Penn State driver was collapsed upon by a pack-in zone and it rendered the Lions' attack worthless. That ultimately is what won Pitt the game and gave Kevin Stallings his first win over their in-state rivals.
- Free throw shooting continues to be a major strength for Penn State, paradoxically. Carr and Stevens didn't come in with reputations as great free-throw shooters but they have missed four freebies each on 82 combined attempts. You'd have to think some regression will occur at some point, but it must be comforting to Chambers that he can rely on his star freshmen at the line.
- Penn State went away from feeding the post in recent games, and it's very clear now that that "strategy" was a mistake. The game flipped on its head once Watkins got involved, and the redshirt freshman delivered on his opportunities. He also added two more blocks to his B1G-leading tally, and he's still top-10 nationally in block rate. This kid is for real, and Chambers would be wise to build his half-court offense around Watkins post-ups.
- St. John's has struggled early on this season, but their upcoming matchup with Penn State in a week from today will be a very interesting test for two very similar teams. The Johnnies are also freshmen-driven, led by a dynamic backcourt of Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds. A road win would be huge for Penn State in their current form, and they'll have to bottle today's second-half effort to get a positive result in the Garden. More on that game coming later in the week.