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Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Win NIT With 82-66 Victory Over Utah

by on March 29, 2018 10:57 PM

MANHATTAN., NY. Somewhere in the middle of the fourth quarter Shep Garner looked up and realized it was going to happen.

He pumped his fist by his side, a smile running across his face as the ball made its way around the court.

"I knew midway through the fourth," Garner said after the game. "They were giving up. You could see on their face, they knew that they weren't going to win."

Penn State was going to win, Shep Garner's season was going to end on a win. He was going to see a banner raised. He was going to be a part of something special. An eventual 82-66 victory over Utah the official marker of that achievement. 

So don't tell him the NIT doesn't matter.

Don't tell freshman John Harrar either, Penn State's bench-bound big man that turned into one of the most crucial parts of the Nittany Lions' run after Mike Watkins was injured.

"A year ago I didn't know what I was going to do," Harrar said. "To be in this situation, is awesome."

Harrar finished his season with eight points and 12 rebounds. A player that spent much of the year watching, found himself making some of the biggest plays early in Penn State's win. A zero to a hero, a observer to a contributor.

So don't tell him it doesn't matter.

Don't tell Julian Moore, who held the the NIT Trophy in his arms sitting alone in the locker room just happy as can be. Moore could have transferred, he was offered options from other schools, but he stayed put.

And he was rewarded for his loyalty. Beloved by his teammates and respected by his coaches. He too a big contributor after the loss of Watkins.

Five years of effort, dozens of games of trying, many coming up just short. They don't get much older or much wiser than Moore.

So don't tell him it doesn't matter.

Don't tell Pat Chambers, who has seen nets cut down before as an assistant. A coach that has stuck to a blueprint that has been a long haul but an undeniable improvement for a program that needed someone to believe it could be better than it was. Relevance in Philadelphia, competitiveness in the Big Ten. Maybe this season was a step short of a bigger goal, but the basketball was no less impressive, no less fun to watch. 

The plan worked. 26 wins, second most in program history, defense, rebounding, consistent offense.

"I have one of my own now," Chambers said, holding a piece of the net above his head as he stood in a hallway deep underneath the building.

So don't tell him it doesn't matter.

For the game itself the only surprise was that it took Penn State longer than normal to pull away against an NIT foe. The Nittany Lions ended the first quarter with the second alley-oop of the night to take the lead at 21-20. A slow start that turned into every game Penn State had played so far this NIT aside from its first round meeting with Temple. It was defense, it was offense, it was effort plays.

It was, per its own definition, Penn State basketball.

By the second half it was clear that the Nittany Lions would only lose if they allowed themselves to. Utah was throwing punches, cutting the lead early in the second half to just a basket, but Tony Carr was throwing haymakers while Lamar Stevens followed up with jabs. Carr finished a rebound shy of a triple-double in a virtuoso performance of court vision and skill that racked up 14 assists and 15 points. Stevens ended with 28 points on 11-of-15 shooting and was a matchup Utah had no answer for.

Penn State was a wave, much like the 11,175 fans that filled Madison Square Garden almost entirely cheering for the Nittany Lions. As Utah fans tried to cheer, they were drowned out, Utah fans cheered louder, but they were no match for the masses.

And neither was their team.

Success in sports has a way of fleeting far faster than the effort require to find it. This win will go unnoticed by many, the title appreciated by the dedicated and the emotions of victory enjoyed by the players. The Final Four in just days will erase it from the national spotlight if it even lasts that long. Tony Carr's pending NBA decision will shape Penn State's next 12 months in either direction, chants of "One more year" ringing across Madison Square Garden as he cut down his own bit of net.

But in the long run that won't change what Penn State basketball did this season, which was to play some of its best basketball of the past decade if not more. To beat teams with ease at home and on the road. To find a way to gut out last second heroics and create first half blowouts.

And in the end, regardless of what the world might think of the NIT, a locker room full of kids hugging and cheering simply don't care to hear it. After years and seasons and months of work and of heartbreak, it's all ending on a high note.

So don't tell them it doesn't matter.

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