Through the first eleven games, it's been nearly impossible to pinpoint one game where you truly felt good about Penn State's performance. Not only have they lost five games already, but even their wins against shorthanded foes have been less than impressive.
We had been waiting for a breakout sign from this team for what's felt like weeks. Midway through the first half of the Lions early Sunday morning tip against St. John's, this team finally delivered.
Penn State found themselves down 24-17 with just over nine minutes left in the first half. The Nittany Lions had been giving a good effort on both ends, but the same problems kept holding them back. Missed shots yielded empty possessions, while their defensive rebounding woes continued to extend their opponent's possessions.
But everything changed once this team started to make shots. Shep Garner and Payton Banks caught fire from beyond the arc and suddenly Penn State was playing their best basketball not only of this season, but arguably of the Pat Chambers era. When the half-time buzzer sounded after a gorgeous Tony Carr floater, the Lions had ended the period on a soul-crushing 35-5 run to take a commanding 52-29 lead.
St. John's pressed the entire second half which gave Penn State problems. The Lions had twelve turnovers in the first eight minutes of the second period, but St. John's was never able to cut the deficit less than 16 points. Penn State held on for the feel-good, 92-76 road win to improve to 7-5 on the season. It was exactly the performance this team needed to show heading into the Big Ten slate next week.
We knew this was going to be a fast game, but I'm not sure I expected 80 possessions. St. John's pressed most of the second half that harassed Penn State into some sloppy turnovers. Both teams were careless with the basketball, but Penn State's hot shooting gave them the decisive edge in this game. It was great to see this team finally break the elusive 1.0-PPP mark after failing to reach it the last five games.
- Shep Garner - This was the type of leadership I expected from Shep at the beginning of the season. He knocked down open threes to jump-start PSU's offense. Despite picking up two fouls early in the first half, Chambers trusted his veteran to stay out of foul trouble and he did before fouling out near the end of the game. Garner finished with 21 points on 6-9 shooting from beyond the arc.
- Mike Watkins - He's simply a gamechanger. His statline speaks for itself. 15 points (6-10 FG), 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 1 steal and +30 in a career-high 32 minutes. Penn State has never had a player like him and he's only 12 games into his career.
- Lamar Stevens - He spent most of the first half on the bench with two fouls, but his aggression early helped set the tone for the offense. Stevens finished with 9 points and 4 rebounds in 17 minutes.
- Tony Carr - While his 2-point shooting continues to be a struggle, Tony built off his strong second half at Pitt with another solid game. He was careless with four second half turnovers but finished with 13 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
- Payton Banks - Banks continues to prove he's a more reliable shooter this season. His hot shooting helped open up the offense in the first half when Lamar went out with 2 fouls. 17 points (5-9 from 3), 3 assists and 3 rebounds for the California native.
- Josh Reaves - Here's a Josh Reaves statline if you've ever seen one. 13 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals. He was everywhere in Penn State's press and displayed some improved playmaking off dribble drives to the hoop.
- Julian Moore - Sadly, Moore was not part of this team's outstanding performance today. He only played 3 minutes.
- Terrence Samuel - The Brooklyn native didn't ball-hog in his return home, but he was able to provide 21 minutes off the bench. Samuel finished with 4 points and 2 rebounds.
- Isaiah Washington - There was a brief Washington sighting in this game for two short minutes. He was in before Davis Zemgulis or Nazeer Bostick, who were DNP-CDs.