No Tony Carr? No Josh Reaves? No problem. Penn State gutted out a 14-point win over Columbia to continue their undefeated start to the 2017 season. With the victory, the Nittany Lions move to 4-0 for the first time since the 2010-11 season.
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With Carr and Reaves both out due to ankle injuries, Pat Chambers’ starting lineup looked a bit different. To make up for the loss in speed, Chambers decided to go big with size in his starting five against Columbia's Ivy League front line. Mike Watkins shifted to the four while Julian Moore started at center in the frontcourt. Nazeer Bostick took over the guard spot left by Carr.
Penn State was able to build a double-digit lead behind the masked Shep Garner's hot shooting midway through the first half, but some quick threes from Columbia got them right back in it by the break. Penn State kept collapsing on defense and was forcing bad shots on offense, allowing Columbia to end the first period on an 18-9 run and cut the lead to three with a buzzer beater by Gabe Stefanini. Still, the home team went into the half up three.
In the second half, the superior Lions flashed their athleticism and dominated on both ends of the court. Most of that dominance came thanks to the awakening of Mike Watkins. After being held scoreless int he first, the big man was a force in the paint after the break. He ended with 11 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, good for his ninth career double-double in just 23 minutes.
This game also brought us our first extended look at Jamari Wheeler and man, is he fast. The freshman didn't have the best night shooting the ball, going just 2-9 from the floor and missing all three of this three-point attempts, but he played a Josh Reaves-esque game on the defensive end. He didn't necessarily stuff the stat sheet but he filled the passing lanes and helped his team force 20 Columbia turnovers.
Despite the big lineup, Penn State did most of the damage shooting the basketball from mid-range and deep, with Garner leading the charge. He was lights out, putting up 26 points while going 10 for 18 from the floor and shooting 45% from beyond the arc. He was also rocking a sweet mask due to a broken nose he suffered on Wednesday against Montana - obviously, he's the reason we've seen Kyrie Irving go for the same look.
If there's one positive of Carr and Reaves' absences, it's that we learned that Penn State can fall back on its defense and frontcourt to compete. Although Garner's shooting performance was senior-worthy, he was not alone in producing in the injureds' absences. Along with Watkins and Wheeler's great outings, Lamar Stevens had his second consecutive good effort, putting up 14 points while shooting 50% from the floor - including a pair of second-half corner threes to help put the game out of Columbia's reach. Nazeer Bostick added 10 points and 8 rebounds in his first career start, and Satchel Pierce had his best game as a Nittany Lion with 11 points (7-8 FT), despite needing the bench to tell him when to roll after setting a screen. That's teamwork if you ask us.
Penn State will return to action on Monday night in Brooklyn to take on Pitt in the Legends Classic (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3). They'll hope to get Carr and Reaves back in playing shape as they try to avenge last season's blowout loss to the Panthers in Newark.
Check back for updates from Pat Chambers' post-game press conference below.
Chambers on Reaves and Carr: "They're gonna try to go on Monday. So we'll see what happens. I'm more optimistic about Tony than Josh, because Josh just did his today...I would think they'll be ready to go on Monday."
Chambers on his team's confidence heading after the few games: "I think they have confidence. I think they're really starting to believe in what we're doing. I think they're starting to build trust. We had four games in eight days and last year at this point we might have got blown out...just shows you our strength."
Chambers on Penn State's aggressive play on the offensive glass: "It was something that was part of the gameplan. We only had four last game. I didn't see the extra effort...we have to get to the glass and give us more opportunities. It breaks a teams back."