Five games, five wins.
There was little doubt Penn State would be playing in the NIT in the aftermath of its final Big Ten Tournament game. The Nittany Lions came up short against Purdue at Madison Square Garden, sealing their invite to the second-rate tournament. It would've been easy for Pat Chambers' team to hang their heads, having falling short of their NCAA Tournament goal.
Instead, Penn State won five straight games and raised a trophy. The Nittany Lions capped a dominant NIT run with a 82-66 win against Utah in the tournament final at Madison Square Garden, leaving little doubt as to who was the best squad in the 32-team field.
A slow start offensively against Utah's zone was saved by hustle plays by Josh Reaves and John Harrar, who had four points and four rebounds before the first media timeout. The Utes were ruthless for much of the first quarter, bolstered by Sedrick Barefield's 3-for-3 start from the three-point line.
Penn State took advantage of Justin Bibbins' size, however, posting Lamar Stevens on the All-Pac 12 point guard and forcing him to commit two early fouls. Stevens brought the juice for PSU with nine points, including two triples, and a trademark pin of a Jayce Johnson layup attempt to keep the Nittany Lions around enough to pounce, and pounce they did. A 7-0 run capped by Reaves' second alley-oop finish of the game saw the favorites take a 21-20 lead into the first break.
Just as they did in the semifinals on Tuesday, Penn State came alive from three in the second quarter. There was no 24-0 run, but four triples saw the Lions inch ahead to a ten-point lead with 2:50 to play in the half. Tony Carr struggled creating for himself with eight points on 11 shots, but he was at his best as a facilitator against Utah's matchup zone with seven first-half dimes. The quarter was marred by a nasty head injury to Utah's David Collette. The Ute senior went down for a loose ball and collided with Carr's hip, sending Collette to the ground. He was able to walk off the floor with help, and later diagnosed with a muscle strain in his neck according to the ESPN broadcast.
Larry Krystkowiak gambled and re-inserted Bibbins at the start of the second quarter despite his foul issues. It paid off as his diminutive star went the entire quarter without a foul, and Utah was able to climb back into the game before the half with four points from Bibbins and Barefield's fourth three in four tries.
An early second-half Utah response made things interesting for a time — Collette was able to return, thankfully — but Penn State's talent simply could not be stopped. The Nittany Lions took care of the little things — defending and rebounding, as Pat Chambers' mantra went all season — and there was not a damn thing Utah, nor any team in the NIT, could do about it. Stevens, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, finished with 28 points on 15 shots, his most efficient game in Blue and White. Harrar capped his emergence in the NIT with seven points and a career-high 12 rebounds. Reaves was magnificent, with 18 points on a number of circus-caliber finishes around the rim and the lockdown defense he's now just expected to play.
Hopefully you got a good look at Tony Carr. NBA scouts surely did, as he went for 14 assists and one turnover in 39 minutes, his best distributing in a Penn State uniform. He threw in 15 points and nine rebounds for good measure, coming up just shy of the second triple-double in Nittany Lion hoops history. If he does come back for his junior season, there will fun times ahead.
It's going to be wild next year when the reigning NIT champ wins the Big Ten
— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) March 30, 2018
Shep Garner didn't have a memorable shooting night (2-for-6 from deep) but it's hard to imagine a better way to end his illustrious career than raising the NIT trophy and going out on a high, much like Jamelle Cornley in 2009. Garner and Julian Moore, who played much of the fourth quarter, earned an emotional curtain call to fanfare from the large Penn State contingent as MSG. It probably got a little dusty in your living room when Garner embraced Chambers on his final walk to the sideline as a Nittany Lion.
And so, it's a dream ending to a roller coaster season for Penn State. No, they did not meet their ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament. There's a sense of frustration knowing the Nittany Lions waltzed through this NIT with such relative ease, and fans will forever wonder what could've been if Reaves had stayed eligible, or if Mike Watkins didn't get injured, or if they hadn't sleepwalked through the infamous Rider game. What fans won't ever wonder is whether these players changed Penn State basketball for the better.