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It's a rare occasion that Penn State will play a ranked non-conference opponent at home — the last time was in December of 2004 against Pitt, an 84-71 loss to Jamie Dixon's Panthers. It's even rarer that the Nittany Lions will claim victory over a ranked non-con opponent, but Pat Chambers' squad did just that on Tuesday night in a scrappy 63-62 victory over No. 13 Virginia Tech. Myreon Jones, of all people, led the Lions with 18 points on a scorching 7-for-11 shooting from the field in a win that should look mighty fine on an NCAA tournament résumé. More notably, at least to Chambers, will be the defensive mettle his Lions showed against one of the nation's top offenses.
Mike Watkins' return to action undoubtedly gave the home team a boost in a few areas of the game, none more noticeable than his impact on the glass. Watkins himself contributed seven rebounds in 21 minutes, and the Nittany Lions outrebounded the Hokies 14 to 8 on the offensive glass. Penn State needed every one of those boards as their opponents shot the lights out — VT went 10-for-19 from three, taking advantage of some tired PSU hedges in pick-and-roll situations. Star Hokie guard Justin Robinson and substitute Ty Outlaw were at one point a combined 8-for-8 from three.
But every time the visitors threatened to pull away, Penn State's youth movement answered. Virginia Tech pushed their lead to eight midway through the first half, but a 10-0 run keyed by threes from Jamari Wheeler and Rasir Bolton saw the Lions overtake the lead 23-21, capped by a trademark mid-range pull-up from Lamar Stevens. The veteran forward wasn't at his absolute best, failing to reach the 20-point mark for the first time this season, but his 14 points and team-high eight rebounds were vital nonetheless.
Again, when the 13th-ranked team in the country threatened to blow a tight game open midway through the second half, the late-signee freshman Jones — not all-Big Ten candidate Stevens — saved the Nittany Lions from cratering. The Memphis decommit poured in 11 straight points over a five minute stretch as VT stretched their lead to six. It would get no larger as Penn State chipped away and eventually led by three after a well-run out of bounds play set up Bolton for a wide open corner triple, which he drained.
Virginia Tech had multiple chances to take the lead back in the final minutes of action, bolstered by a few questionable calls from the officials. First a double flagrant was called after a review to chicken out of making a game-changing call on either Josh Reaves or Kerry Blackshear, the latter of which hooked and held the former while they both fought for a rebound. Then with 1:24 left and VT down three Robinson made a break to the rim with only Wheeler there to defend the rim. Wheeler seemingly went for the ball but Robinson was hit hard, drawing another flagrant one foul that gave the Hokies two free throws and the ball back down 63-62.
Buzz Williams called a play for Blackshear against Stevens in the post on the ensuing inbound. The PSU star held firm and John Harrar rebounded. The Lions got an offensive rebound from an otherwise ineffective Josh Reaves on their next possession, but squandered another opportunity to seal the game. Virginia Tech blew their last real chance however, as Robinson's NBA-range three clanked off the back iron and Ahmed Hill's follow hit the front rim, giving Penn State a résumé-headlining non-conference win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Chambers posited after the game that Penn State is close to reaching its full potential with Watkins back in the fold. It certainly feels like we saw Penn State's best self on the defensive end on Tuesday night — the Nittany Lions held one of the nation's top-10 most efficient offenses to less than 1.00 points per possession. It's possible they won't face a more efficient offense the rest of the season. Watkins gives them the force of nature interior defensive presence that Harrar and Trent Buttrick simply could not provide, and now there's depth on that front line. More defensive efforts like that can launch Penn State to new heights if they can keep the losses to DePaul and Bradley in the rearview mirror.
Up next? A Saturday road date at Maryland and arguably the best interior 1-2 punch in the league in Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith. More on the Terps later this week.