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Penn State Basketball: Stevens Stumbles as Nittany Lions Race Toward End of the Track and Whatever Is Next

by on March 03, 2020 10:45 PM

Penn State rolled the tape on the Bryce Jordan Center scoreboard as the Nittany Lions took part in their postgame Senior Night ceremony.

"I want to take Penn State to places it has never been before," now senior Lamar Stevens says into the camera still wearing his Roman Catholic uniform, still in the Roman Catholic gym, still four years younger.

A lot has happened since that clip was filmed. Stevens has scored nearly more points than any Penn State player to wear the jersey. He is now just 25 points shy of breaking Talor Battle's mark and etching his name atop the history books. He has pulled down rebounds, dished out assists, blocked shots. As players have come and gone there has been a constant over the past four years of Penn State basketball. 

It has been Lamar Stevens. And in turn, the Nittany Lions have gone from a doormat to a Top 25 team. The butt of the joke to the hunted.

So in the grand scope Stevens has succeeded in his quest. The Nittany Lions spent a portion of the year ranked in the Top 10, they are slotted to make the NCAA Tournament without any real drama to that point. You can mix around the variables that quantify how you define quality and make your own list of truly great Penn State teams, but at their height the Nittany Lions could have thrown punches with any in the country and had a chance. That alone is worth a valuation among the program's best.

So yes, he has taken the program to places it has never been, at least places it does not often frequent.

It's perhaps a right of passage that Stevens was rolled over on his senior night. Battle befell a similar fate falling to Ohio State on his own final regular season game at the BJC with the Nittany Lions putting up far less of a fight. Battle would go on to make the NCAA Tournament, avoiding a bubble burst, only to fall in the first round at the buzzer, setting in motion a chain of events that have led us all to this moment in time.

And in this moment Stevens takes a deep breath, blanket draped across his shoulder, his face flush with emotions. 

"Oh man," he says with a pause, the crowd rallying behind him once again.

It was not the night Penn State, Stevens, Pat Chambers or some 13,437 fans had hoped for. Leading by as man as 19 in the first half, the Nittany Lions were white-hot, making 10 shots from beyond the arc, picking up assists, baskets and dunks. It was Penn State at its best, a sign of the team that had won eight-straight in a meat grinder of a league. Sneaky guard Myreon Jones was back in the mix for the second-straight game, firing at will from everywhere and hitting from everywhere in kind.

But Stevens stumbled, a miss, another miss, a missed dunk, a missed free throw. Something was off. Weeks of 100% effort, months of travel, months of caring, months of trying so hard to finally get over that him. Maybe it was the weight of everything that has happened over the span of his career. Maybe he's hurt. Maybe he just can't quite do it anymore. Maybe it just wasn't his night.

The irony of course is that during perhaps the best defensive game of his career -- once a weakness -- Stevens couldn't do all the things he had built a legacy on. He ended the game 3-of-19, his 15 points coming almost in time and also far too late as Penn State saw its lead shrink in the opening minutes of the second half. Before anyone could blink the Spartans were ahead by as many as 10 with 9:41 to go.

It's in those moments -- the key word of the year -- that you think of the places Penn State has been, where it is going, and where it might end up.

In the broad scope, Penn State's season will end with at least 21 wins and in all likelihood one or two more. It will make the NCAA Tournament with enough talent and skill and depth to make a run. These things are undoubtedly true, there's no disputing what this team is capable of, nor anything that erases the road victories over Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Georgetown and victories over Ohio State and Minnesota.

All the same the Nittany Lions have lost the rudder that had made them so potent over their eight-game wining streak. Every team loses, every team has bad games, but strong first half play followed by lacking second half offense has rendered a lot of "what if's" in the conversation.

It's then when you wonder what a world without Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins might become, and if it might mark the return of a familiar friend to the program, one named "nearly."

And that is what cut to the core of the Jordan Center's mood as fans filed out of the seats. For all of the exciting wins, for all of the big moments and for what amounts to a historically good season with a postseason run still ahead, it's hard not to feel like you had seen that game before, both this season and ones before.

When it's all said and done Penn State appears to have the talent to win without Stevens. It nearly did so on Tuesday night. Equally true, a Penn State program doomed to perpetually live in the middle of the conference comfortably making the postseason as a middling seed is far from the worst fate to befall a Power Five school. 

But it's hard not to wonder that if Lamar Stevens had pulled Penn State from the brink, if someone else will have to do it again And whether or not the climb was really a climb, or just a very long loop. 

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