Garner delivers for PSU

UNIVERSITY PARK — The symbiotic relationship that Patrick Chambers had hoped for finally came to fruition in a 71-67 victory over Illinois on Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The veterans made shots which allowed the young talent to be unleashed. Penn State almost gave up a 22-point lead in the second half but held off the Fighting Illini to snap a three game losing streak.

“I told them in the locker room ‘celebrate success,'” Chambers said after getting his first four-win January at Penn State. “We could have easily let that one slip away.”

There was a lot to celebrate in the first half. The Lions didn’t miss a shot in the first seven minutes of play, making all seven of their attempts.

“They came out and hit us in the mouth in the first half,” coach John Groce said.

Leading the charge was junior Shep Garner, who had a team-high 18 points. The captain’s shooting prowess had gone stale during the past few games, making the team reliant on the excusably inconsistent freshmen.

“I think the young guys needed to see him emerge like this, to see him become the leader of this team,” Chambers said. “He’s definitely back.”

Even though Garner could not conjure up a reason for finding his shot again, the effect his shots had on the team’s performance was palpable.

Co-captain Payton Banks, who finished the game with 17 points, was nearly perfect from the 3-point line, making 4-of-5 attempts.

“I thought Shep and Payton really set the tone,” Chambers said, “We had some good shots early on.”

The shooting clinic put on by the team’s captains opened up lanes for the best freshman class in Chambers’ tenure.

“They like to get in the paint and finish. So when we’re hitting shots, the defense has to try and contain us,” Garner said. “And the Red Sea opens.”

Mike Watkins functioned as Moses in Garner’s biblical reference, flaunting his his 6-foot-10, 246-pound frame with a career-tying four dunks.

The dunking had two functions: it provided a guaranteed conversion for the Lions and kept the crowd alive throughout the contest despite an initially lopsided score.

“I think everybody likes seeing dunks,” Banks said. “It’s pretty entertaining.”

The Lions finished their highest shooting percentage in five games, converting on 49 percent of their shots from the field. The team was 60 percent from the field in the first half.

The offensive dominance translated to defensive confidence. Josh Reaves, who leads the Big Ten in total steals (41), had a series of blocks to initiate a 3¢-minute scoring drought for the Illini.

The final 4 minutes of the first half were the Lions’ best of the season. Riding off the momentum of a pair of 3-pointers from the captains and a couple of commanding dunks from Watkins, the Lions went on a 14-2 run to bring a 45-25 lead into halftime.

“You’ve got one of two choices: you fight or flight,” Groce said. “We decided to fight.”

The fight was done in the paint. The Illini, who had four players with more than six rebounds, outrebounded the Lions 40-27.

After the Lions entered a 2-minute scoring drought, it wasn’t really a surprise what brought them out of it. Watkins recorded his fourth dunk.

“Stops and charges and big-time, grown-man rebounds. … I wish that would get us going,” Chambers said. “But we’re a good dunking team. We need juice. We need energy. We need that fire.”

With 8 minutes left in the contest, the Illini began chipping at the Lions’ lead. Malcolm Hill, who finished the night with a game-high 19 points, launched his team into an 8-0 run that cut the Lions lead to five.

“Did they play like their head was being held under water after getting down? Sure,” Groce said of his team. “They played harder, they played better.”

The Illini maintained an unnerving three-point tether to the Lions until the final seconds.

Freshman Tony Carr, who finished the game with 13 points, kept the Lions afloat during comeback, scoring seven of the teams’ final 19 points.

“He’s a winner,” Chambers said. “That’s what we need here: a winner’s mentality. And he’s got it.”

A pair of free throws by Reaves in the final seconds severed the stressful three-point tether to seal the win.

Although Chambers emphasized that the team didn’t classify the game as a “must-win,” this season’s narrative would be incredibly deary if the Lions continued their losing streak.

ILLINOIS (13-9): Black 2-6 0-0 4, Morgan 4-7 2-2 10, Hill 7-15 2-2 19, Coleman-Lands 5-9 0-0 13, Lucas 2-8 0-0 4, Finke 2-6 0-0 5, Nichols 3-5 1-1 8, Thorne 1-3 0-3 2, Abrams 1-5 0-0 2, Tate 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-65 5-8 67.

PENN ST. (12-10): Moore 0-0 0-0 0, Stevens 1-7 1-3 3, Reaves 3-6 2-2 8, Garner 5-11 4-4 18, Carr 6-11 0-2 13, Banks 5-8 3-3 17, Watkins 5-8 0-0 10, Samuel 1-2 0-0 2, Bostick 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-53 10-14 71.

Halftime–Penn St. 45-25. 3-Point Goals–Illinois 8-22 (Coleman-Lands 3-5, Hill 3-9, Nichols 1-1, Finke 1-3, Abrams 0-1, Lucas 0-3), Penn St. 9-18 (Banks 4-5, Garner 4-9, Carr 1-2, Reaves 0-2). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Illinois 37 (Coleman-Lands, Finke 7), Penn St. 26 (Watkins 9). Assists–Illinois 15 (Hill 7), Penn St. 13 (Reaves, Samuel, Carr 3). Total Fouls–Illinois 16, Penn St. 12. A–10,202 (15,261).