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Penn State Basketball: No. 21 Nittany Lions Surge Past No. 23 Iowa 89-86

by on January 04, 2020 8:00 PM

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.– Penn State coach Patrick Chambers is rarely moved by the moment. In victory there is respect for how quickly today's win can be replaced by tomorrow's loss. In defeat he is positive, driven by the same kind of eternal optimism that wakes up coaches across America every single day.

But even he had to take a minute following No. 21 Penn State's 89-86 victory over No. 23 Iowa on Saturday afternoon inside a sweltering but always historic Palestra in west Philadelphia.

"You know, I sit here and I reflect, which I never get to do, I thought that was just incredible, just incredible," Chambers said following the game.

"The fans, thank you so much for coming out for being a big part of that success, that victory. And then as a young boy, coming out here and then being able to coach in a game like that. My head is still spinning."

It was the kind of game that would make anyone's head do a turn.

To summarize, there were 24 lead changes, 10 different moments when the game was tied. Iowa led for just over 19 minutes, Penn State for nearly 15. Both teams held a lead of seven or eight points. Iowa put together a 9-0 scoring run, Penn State a 6-0 run. Hawkeye big man Luke Garza was phenomenal, racking up 34 points. Penn State's bench was outstanding, scoring 46.

There were dunks, there were dives onto the ground for loose balls. Both coaches ripped into referees on the edge of more than a warning. Fans packed the historic venue to the gills. Good players had bad games and bounced back to make big plays in key moments.

It was, as an older scribe said after the fact: "The best the regular season can offer."

Little did anyone know this some two hours and 20 minutes earlier. Penn State and Iowa threw testing jabs to open, neither team taking a big lead, neither team phased by the moment, the noise or the pressure.

From there the stories began to unfold, Mike Watkins picking up two first half fouls and Lamar Stevens not far behind. The Nittany Lions are as deep as they come, nine players seeing the floor for over 10 minutes, but none as experienced or as vital as their two veteran leaders.

All the same it was Penn State taking a slim 39-38 advantage into the halftime break, the crowd living and dying on each shot. For fans who have longed for the moment that Penn State basketball could become relevant, Saturday was a trip into a universe where not only was the basketball good, but the support behind it as well. Except this universe was their own.

In the second half the drama continued, Stevens and Watkins picking up more fouls, relegated to the bench yet again. It was then that Philadelphia native Izaiah Brockington stepped into the moment. Brockington had played at the Palestra before, twice in fact while in high school, but had lost both times.

"I knew I had experienced everything but a win," Brockington said after the game.

And he played like a man obsessed with finally getting one, scoring 23 points in the Nittany Lions' biggest moment of need. If this Penn State team is anything, it is a team with options. Lamar Stevens is the star, but he doesn't have to be one every night and on Saturday it was Brockington's turn, and he delivered.

"It was definitely a little bit of a conscious effort just knowing that two big parts of our offense were on the bench with four trouble," He added. "And coach has us in practice in game situations where Mike is in foul trouble or Lamar is in foul trouble. So I knew were capable of playing without home."

But the Nittany Lions weren't out of the woods yet, still trailing by seven with just over nine minutes to play Iowa looked the part of a winner. Garza was unstopped in the paint and the absence of Watkins, and his struggling performance while on the court provided little answer. While the Hawkeyes shot an effective 11-for-26 from beyond the arc, seemingly all timely makes, Penn State was 8-of-28 with little consistency beyond Curtis Jones 4-for-6 effort from deep. The Nittany Lions may have been the more complete team, but that doesn't put the ball in the hoop. The game was close, and yet the Nittany Lions felt so far behind.

All the while the clock ticked and Lamar Stevens sat on the bench, his four fouls eating away at him. His one final chance to play in the building he loved looked more and more to be a day where he would serve more as a cheerleader and spectator than game-changer.

The clock ticked, and ticked and ticked.

From the 11:48 mark in the second half to just 6:39 to go Stevens watched his team hang on by a thread, never down by more than seven but never quite within striking distance.

Then Chambers called his senior back out and Stevens rose, removed his warmups and took the court, the crowd rising with him. It was now or never.

11 seconds later Curtis Jones would rise as well, nailing a three to cut the deficit in half. Another three by Jones with 3:03 to play would give Penn State its first second half lead, blowing the roof off the already history-filled gym.

In the game's final five minutes the Nittany Lions would play one of their best stretches of basketball on both ends of the court under Pat Chambers. Perhaps not for its flare, but for what it did, turning a game on the brink of defeat into a defensive clinic and a showcase of timely shotmaking. In total the Nittany Lions would go 7-for-8 from the field in the final six minutes while holding Garza to just four points from the field along the way.

The lead would come and go five times in that stretch, but Penn State would never trail again as Stevens shifted in the lane, hitting a shot from the elbow with 2:33 left in regulation to put the Nittany Lions ahead 79-78. Stevens would do it again with 41 seconds to play to put Penn State ahead by four, setting off a sequence of fouls and free throws that would ultimately secure the win.

It was in this moment that Myles Dread, who had made just two baskets from the field all day, rose to the occasion himself, making six-straight from the line in the closing minute, erasing any headway the Hawkeyes made on the previous possession. 

All the while the crowd roared, nearly 8,000 strong turning the old arena into an echo chamber of noise. There are many moments when cliches are simply that, some kind of lazy writing to get out of saying things a new way. But this game was a dog fight, it was a hurricane, it was why we love sports.

"Playing (at the Palestra) in high school is great," Stevens said with a grin. "But there's nothing like coming back and playing in college."

It was as good as it gets.

But it is just one game. Penn State will travel to face Rutgers in New Jersey this Tuesday before traveling back to host Wisconsin next weekend in State College.

For the moment though the Nittany Lions will enjoy it, Saturday was everything you dream about. It was loud, the roof shook, two great teams threw punches and both teams looked down and out only to rise back up for another round. If you couldn't enjoy that you didn't deserve to be in the building. Sometimes there are games that remind you why you like the sport so much, games that will never quite be "just another one" on a long list.

And that's worth taking a moment for.

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