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Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Upend No. 6 Michigan 75-69

by on February 13, 2019 1:10 AM

Lamar Stevens might be one of the most interesting athletes Penn State has on campus.

He is the best player on a Big Ten team that has won two games against conference foes in 13 attempts. The season is — from the standpoint of accomplishments — over, and has been for a long time.

And yet Stevens, who could very well opt to forego his senior season in the next few months, still cares.

He cares a lot in fact. He cares so much that as he pins a second-straight block to the backboard late in Penn State's 75-69 win over No. 6 Michigan that he flexes and shouts to the rafters. It's a release of anger, of disappointments, of stress and that too of joy. 

He cares.

But nobody would blame Stevens if he didn't, if he and his teammates were looking towards the summer and their futures be it at Penn State or beyond. 

It's perhaps the greatest compliment of Pat Chambers' tenure that wins like the one on Tuesday night are not entirely unexpected. Although, in a way this fact is also to his detriment, that Penn State can — on a semi-regular basis — beat teams it otherwise shouldn't but struggle to take care of slightly less ominous opponents.

Nevertheless, Stevens and the Nittany Lions showed up Tuesday night, forcing the Wolverines out of rhythm, working to a 16-point lead to open the second half. Stevens would score 26 while Myles Dread added 17 of his own making five from beyond the arc. 

Perhaps most impressive of all, this was a game won from the front. Nearly six years ago when Penn State upset Michigan the first time, the Wolverines held a 15-point lead with 10 minutes to play. On Wednesday the Nittany Lions were the ones fending off the comeback, seeing their lead shrink to four, but never less than that, leading for just over 36 minutes of a 40 minute game. 

None of it would have happened if they hadn't cared. Caring in a way that makes you go above and beyond. Caring in a way that means you can still take a punch and get back up.

And that is easier said than done.

But why submit yourself to it in the first place? Why open yourself up to more pain during a season that has had so much of it? So many close losses, so many missed chances.

"We're all competitors," Stevens said last week. "You don't look at the overall record, you're looking at this game and this opponent, at the person going against you. I want to beat him. That's what we all are, we are all competitors. It doesn't matter if we're 0-100, if we have a game tomorrow we're still going to go hard, still going to try and win that possession."

As Penn State walked off the court embraced by a throng of students who had rushed to join the celebration, Stevens smiled, high-fiving his way through the crowd there to greet him.

But the biggest smiles were saved for his teammates. As he learned that Dread was on a torrid pace for three-pointers made among Big Ten freshmen, Stevens patted him on the back of the head, grinning all the while. No longer the high-profile freshman, Stevens is the old guy in the room, the leader and the one who shoulders so much in the way of stresses and responsibilities. Wins or losses, Stevens will be at the center of it all, that's a heavy load to carry.

And yet, maybe for the first time in his career, he finds his pride and happiness in seeing what he has helped grow and develop in the players younger than him. Their accomplishments bring him some of the greatest joy of all. It's not what he does but what they do that shows him a new kind of happiness.

"It's just because I know the struggle," Stevens said after the game. "I was once in [their] shoes. I know how hard it is to play in the Big Ten coming out of high school, I know it's not easy. You have to adjust pretty much your entire game to be effective in this league. And I see how hard they work , I see their dedication to this team snd Coach Chambers and their belief in me, so i always want to see people like that who work hard and always, no matter win or lose, work hard. I'll always want to see them win."

Penn State will savor the win, but the road will get no easier as the Nittany Lions travel to face Purdue on the road. Their record will take its bumps in the coming weeks by the very nature of the schedule.

Even so, for a team loved by few and criticized by many, it's hard not to admire the fact they all still fight for each other just as much as they always have. It doesn't make up for the losses, it doesn't excuse struggles and shortcomings, but it's not something to be ignored either.

"You have one of two options," Stevens said. "You're either going to divide or come close together and I think this team really got closer after everything we've been through."

Sports may not exist for the feel-good life lessons instead of the feel-good victories, but you aren't paying attention if you haven't learned something from this bunch along the way.

And if you haven't, you need to watch more closely.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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