There was something about the way Penn State outlasted Northwestern in their first Big Ten tournament game on Thursday that made you think the Nittany Lions could become of one of March's annual Cinderellas. They played a sluggish 35 minutes against the mediocre Wildcats squad who were limping to the end of a gut-wrenching season. It was as ugly a game as the brutal collapse suffered to the same team in mid-January that dropped the Lions to 3-5. Without Mike Watkins, everyone thought this up-and-down season was headed for a crash landing when the Lions were down 2 with just over four minutes to play.
As we know, Tony Carr had other ideas and led a 13-0 decisive run that advanced Penn State into the quarterfinals. However, what stuck out to me was the body language and sheer confidence displayed by both Carr and Shep Garner. The former Roman Catholic teammates know this weekend is do-or-die for their NCAA tournament hopes, but there could be more to it than that. Garner is a senior in his last go-round, and Carr is currently making himself the talk of scouts and fans alike. The chances he leaves early for the NBA draft are increasing by the day. This could be the Philly duo's last chance to accomplish the program-changing goals they set forth when deciding to come to Penn State.
When Garner hit ridiculous threes to bail out a sputtering offense, including this absurd fadeaway, I just shrugged that off as Shep being Shep in the Garden. After all, he did shoot very well at MSG against Michigan two years ago and St. John's last season. But on Tony Carr's dagger three with two minutes to go, you could hear the senior call it good before anyone else on the broadcast. I believe that's what the kids call Philly Swagger. You could also use that to describe Carr's tongue-wagging on his way up the court after sinking the big shot. That was as boisterous a celebration as you'll ever see from the calm and collected point guard.
I was curious if we would see that same swagger in the quarterfinals against Ohio State for the third time. And why wouldn't we? Tony Carr destroyed these guys in both games they played this season. There were obvious advantages to exploit, but there were weaknesses, too. None bigger than the potential lack of interior defense with Watkins out, but the big man tandem of John Harrar and Julian Moore admirably held their own for 39 minutes.
Penn State started the game off on the right foot with a 12-0 run, but Ohio State countered with a 16-3 spurt to go up 20-15. Lamar Stevens gained early confidence with a pair of tomahawks that led to an impressive first half performance by the sophomore. His aggressiveness drew fouls and put pressure on the Buckeyes' defenders. He also cashed in to go 6-of-7 from the stripe, an area where he has struggled all season.
Carr was his steady self in the first period, chipping in a couple of threes and a few driving layups. He was Penn State's leading scorer at the break with 14 points, as the Lions held a slim 33-32 lead in a tight contest. Pat Chambers got some good bench contributions from Jamari Wheeler (2 steals) and Naz Bostick (4 rebounds), while Moore and Harrar were never exposed by Wesson.
Penn State jumped out to an eight point lead five minutes into the second half with Carr once again leading the way. He was in complete control of the offense, taking good shots while finding open teammates. Even Julian Moore was set up for a couple of huge dunks on the baseline, but you had to know Ohio State was not going to go down without a fight.
As the second half wore on, fatigue clearly started to become a factor for the boys in blue, as they suddenly couldn't get a stop. Keita Bates-Diop took over the Buckeyes' offense and OSU scored on seven of eight possessions, the lone empty trip being the missed front end of a one-and-one at the foul line. Their hot streak flipped a 57-52 deficit into a 68-64 lead with just 100 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves were a combined 0-8 from the floor in the second half, so it felt like it was Tony Carr or bust for Penn State. Wrong.
Reaves, who hasn't been himself offensively in this tournament, stepped up big when it mattered most in the final 60 seconds. A switch on Carr left Reaves with the ball at the top of the key and a scrambling defender trying to recover. The only non-Philly player in blue drove the lane for a straight-on floater but it was too long. A wild putback attempt also didn't fall, before Reaves was fouled and headed to the line down three. While some other guys' confidence may have been shaken from his poor shooting, Reaves calmly sank both free throws to allow Penn State to only need one more stop to have a chance to win the game.
The final twenty seconds of this contest is exactly why you love college basketball in March. There have been critics of this team all season long, especially its seventh-year head coach. Yet they somehow found a way to deliver two huge plays to shut them all up. First, it was Shep Garner, the streaky senior who never learned what a good shot was. Often called worthless by fans if his shot wasn't falling, the senior's overlooked defense came up with the stop of the season. An unfortunate switch left Garner on the much taller KBD as the shot clock wound down in the Buckeyes' final possession. But in a shocking turn of events, Garner picked KBD's pocket to give Penn State the chance to win the game.
His reaction up the court was yet another vivid example of that Philly Swagger. There's only twenty seconds left in the game and Penn State is still down one. The clock is running, and Garner already feels like he won the game. That's because he knew it was Tony Carr time, but so did Ohio State.
Now let's give some credit to the embattled head coach, the one who would've been relentlessly criticized for not calling timeout if the Lions had lost this game. Chambers elected not to cause a stoppage and let Ohio State set up its defense, which proved to be 100% the correct decision. With the ball in Carr's hands against the smaller Andrew Dakich and less than eight seconds left, everyone thought they knew what was coming next. Of course the two-time Philadelphia Catholic league champion was going to take the final shot.
Carr used all of that attention to his team's advantage. C.J. Jackson was so concerned about helping Dakich on Carr that he totally took his eyes off of the man he was suppose to be guarding. Josh Reaves saw the lane part like the red sea and crashed the rim. The perks of being a 6'5 guard allowed Carr to easily see the cutting Reaves and pass over his smaller defenders, setting up the game-winning dunk that may put Penn State back into NCAA bubble conversation.
Philly Swagger wins again. Onto Purdue in the Big Ten semifinals.