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Philly special: Nittany Lions earn key win in wild game at The Palestra

PHILADELPHIA — After making a layup with just 41 seconds to play, Lamar Stevens screamed four words.

“This is my city,” the senior forward yelled after his bucket gave Penn State an 83-79 advantage in its only opportunity to play at one of the country’s most historic gyms, The Palestra.

The No. 21 Nittany Lions won their fourth straight game at the famed “Cathedral of Basketball” in Philadelphia on Saturday, 89-86 over No. 23 Iowa.

Stevens was one of six Nittany Lions with ties to the Philadelphia area and has great memories from the usual home of the Penn Quakers.

“I’ve won every game I’ve played here,” Stevens said.

However, that streak looked to be in jeopardy for parts of the afternoon. Penn State went into the half up just a point, but found itself the victim of hot shooting from the Hawkeyes for the beginning of the second half.

With 9 1/2 minutes to play in the second half, Iowa had opened up a seven-point lead after going five-of-six from beyond the arc coming out of the break. That and 34 points from big man Luka Garza, the Big Ten’s leading scorer coming into the game.

The Nittany Lions (12-2, 2-1 Big Ten) struggled offensively against the Hawkeyes’ zone defense. Penn State’s Mike Watkins had failed to put up a single point against Garza.

Penn State might have found itself in a deeper hole had it not been for Izaiah Brockington. The sophomore St. Bonaventure transfer poured in a career-high 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting in the same gym where he lost two high school playoff games.

“Knowing that the only thing I was missing from The Palestra was a win, definitely put a little extra emphasis on this game,” Brockington said. “I definitely wanted to win in front of my family and friends.

However, it was Curtis Jones Jr., not one of Penn State’s six Philly area natives, who sparked Penn State’s late rally over the Hawkeyes (10-4, 1-2).

Jones Jr. converted on a three with 6:28 left in the game to cut the Iowa lead down to just three. He hit another with just over three minutes to play to give Penn State it’s first lead in over 10 minutes.

“Curtis knows that’s his job,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers said. “For him to make four 3S – and that critical one in the last few minutes there — was enormous.”

The lead changed 24 times during the game, but Penn State finally went ahead for good on a Mike Watkins all-oop slam in transition, just the big man’s second bucket of the game.

“I saw the ball went over my head, and Mike just went up and got it,” Stevens said. “It was crazy.”

The Palestra exploded after the play and with Penn State Athletics bringing its normal PA announcer, taking over the video boards, sound system and the sea of white in the crowd, it might have been easy to mistake the historic field house for Penn State’s Rec Hall.

To the Nittany Lions, there is just something special about The Palestra.

“It’s just an amazing place to watch a game, to play a game, to coach a game, and I feel like our guys understand that,” Chambers said. “The lighting is not the best, it’s 150 degrees (Actual on-court temperatures were around 80 degrees, according to a Penn State spokesperson) and there’s an aura — or can I say, ‘smell?’ — to an old school gym that’s kind of like, you know what, it’s a shame that we build all of these huge arenas and the Final Four is in this huge arena.

“I mean I get it, it’s about ticket sales, I get it. But man, there’s something special to playing here.”

The sellout pro-Penn State crowd only made it more special for Stevens who played several games at The Palestra during his time at Roman Catholic High School and was used to split crowds for those games.

Before Stevens’ clutch lay-up, he minutes were being closely monitored as he picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes still to play. He played only eight minutes during the second half, but Chambers made sure they were well spent, subbing him out whenever he could in the final five minutes.

But the likelihood was that this was Stevens’ final game ever at the Palestra and he wanted to go out the same way he had every other game he played there: With a win.

His emotions after his final field goal showed it.

“It means everything to me,” Stevens said. “I sat for a lot of the game and just coming in and making a big basket and coach trusting me to have the ball and make a play, I think that’s really what it was.”

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