Youthful Lions learning end-of-season hardships

By Paddy Cotter

For the Mirror

WASHINGTON, D.C — The players in Penn State’s locker room were more exhausted than upset after their 78-51 season-ending loss to Michigan State on Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Tony Carr had bags of ice wrapped around his legs and the only quote that Lamar Stevens could muster about Michigan State’s dominant big men was “They’re good.”

The freshman duo of Carr and Stevens led the Lions with 16 points each, outscoring their teammates 32-19.

“The fact that they want to stay in the game, compete, not be subbed out, says a lot about their character,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said.

But character couldn’t carry the Lions past an inevitably hot Spartans team. Coach Tom Izzo is now 101-45 in March over his 22-year career with the Spartans.

The Lions entered an early scoring drought that made a comeback unlikely. For five minutes, the Spartans went on an 11-point run that featured six missed shots by the Lions.

Responsible for the spark in Sparty’s offense was Nick Ward, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. Mike Watkins, who had just broken Penn State’s freshman rebounding record in the Lions’ overtime win over Nebraska the night before, was overwhelmed by the 6-foot-7, 230-pound freshman.

“We wanted to attack Watkins early and get him out of the game.” Spartans forward Miles Bridges said. “So that’s what we did.”

A 3-pointer by Shep Garner and a pair of free throws brought the Lions to within five points midway through the first half.

But the Spartans had another facet to their game that would severe the Lions’ tether. Michigan State scored 10 unanswered points, six of which came from beyond the arc, and extended its lead to 30-13.

The Lions shifted their focus to Ward, which opened up the lane for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Bridges. The forward kept the Spartans’ momentum going with aggressive dunks and commanding rebounds. Bridges mirrored Ward’s statistics with 15 points and nine rebounds.

“He was jacked before the game started,” Izzo said of Bridges. “This means a lot to Miles, as it does our other guys. He’s growing with his leadership, too.”

With four minutes left in the half, both teams had 27 shot attempts. The Lions had made six of those attempts to the Spartans’ 15.

“We didn’t see the ball go in the basket in the first half,” Chambers said. “I still thought we had some good looks. Just didn’t go down for us.”

On the backs of Carr and Stevens, the Lions went on an 8-0 scoring to cut the lead to nine.

But the script immediately flipped back into the Spartans’ favor, who finished the final 2:45 of the first half with nine unanswered points, and capped off a 56-percent shooting performance. The Lions 24-percent shooting performance, and 10-rebound deficit, sent them into halftime down, 45-27.

The Spartans maintained a 20-point buffer for most of the second half, with their largest lead of 28 coming at the 7:22 mark.

For every burst by the Lions, the Spartans had a silencing response that often came in the form of a 3-pointer, which accounted for 38 percent of their offense. The Spartans’ 10 3-pointers set a tournament record for the most in a single game.

“We would fight back. They would go on a run,” Carr said. “Our frustration definitely built up towards the end of the game.”

Penn State finished its season at 15-18, losing six of its final seven games.

“This is the mental toughness part of it, the inexperience part of it, that we have to go through,” Chambers said. “I firmly believe we are going to be in a better situation.”

PENN STATE (15-18): Stevens 7-18 1-2 16, Watkins 3-6 0-0 6, Banks 0-5 3-4 3, Reaves 1-4 0-0 2, Carr 3-15 9-11 16, Zhao 0-0 0-0 0, Zemgulis 0-0 0-0 0, Moore 0-0 0-0 0, Samuel 0-1 2-2 2, Garner 2-6 0-0 6, Washington 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 16-55 15-19 51.

MICHIGAN ST. (19-13): Ward 5-8 5-8 15, Bridges 6-11 2-2 15, Nairn 0-2 0-0 0, Langford 6-10 0-0 13, Ellis 2-9 0-0 5, Goins 2-2 0-0 4, Van Dyk 0-0 0-0 0, McQuaid 3-6 0-0 9, Roy 0-0 0-0 0, Ahrens 2-3 0-0 6, George 0-0 4-6 4, Winston 2-6 1-2 7. Totals 28-57 12-18 78.

Halftime–Michigan St. 45-27. 3-Point Goals–Penn St. 4-15 (Garner 2-4, Stevens 1-3, Carr 1-4, Reaves 0-1, Banks 0-3), Michigan St. 10-22 (McQuaid 3-5, Ahrens 2-2, Winston 2-4, Langford 1-2, Bridges 1-3, Ellis 1-5, Nairn 0-1). Fouled Out–None. Rebounds–Penn St. 27 (Garner 7), Michigan St. 43 (Ward, Bridges 9). Assists–Penn St. 8 (Carr 3), Michigan St. 19 (Nairn 9). Total Fouls–Penn St. 15, Michigan St. 21. Technicals–Stevens, Carr. A–12,189 (20,308).