Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Crack No. 8 Buckeyes 79-56
To his credit, Pat Chambers has never lost sight of the vision.
He shared it with a handful of reporters deep inside the Bryce Jordan Center years ago. It was almost so absurd at the time it didn't even get published. The quote itself lost to the wind, but the general point remained.
Chambers saw Penn State basketball turning into Michigan State, turning into Ohio State. Programs that win at a high level on the court and succeed off of it. That's what he wanted to become.
But it was hard to see that happening, let alone it even being possible. Penn State was lost in the middle of some forgettable desert of losing streaks struggling with it's own history and struggling to take the steps forward it needed to. Recruiting was slow, the losses were hard, and in the end every program wants to be like the best programs. That's how it works. Nobody is striving to go .500.
It would take an unhealthy dose of hyperbole and dramatics to say Penn State has reached that point. The Nittany Lions are imperfect and still find themselves with a lot of work left to do to even make the NCAA Tournament. On a cold and rainy Thursday night though, Penn State took another step, and a vision that once seemed like a motivational poster continued to look far more like a plan in action.
If the Nittany Lions had won, that would have been one thing. Penn State has beaten ranked teams before, Top 10 teams even. The program even in its worst days has been good for the obligatory upset. These players are in the Big Ten after all, and basketball is an odd sport in the way that the ball doesn't care who shoots it if it goes in.
That wasn't what happened. Penn State pounded Ohio State and never looked back. What appeared to be a quick start turned into a blowout. A packed Jordan Center seemed ready for an incoming Buckeye attack, cutting the lead to single digits thanks to a spurt of offense.
It never came.
By the half Tony Carr had looped in one final basket to give Penn State a 45-21 halftime lead that capped off what was arguably among the best in the program's history. Against a team that has one of the best players in the nation by the way of Keita Bates-Diop it was tenacious defense that held him to four points. It was timely shooting that helped Penn State spread the floor.
Everything that could have gone Penn State's way did. A lot of it because the Nittany Lions did it themselves.
In the second half the lead would balloon to 30, a margin that was so foreign to fans that the crowd seemed to struggle to know the right way to react. It looked like it was done and over, but with 15 minutes to play and a nuanced history of second half collapses, nothing really felt safe. But this had to be? Right?
Ohio State would, finally, find its legs going on a 18-4 run that cut the lead to under 20, but Penn State was still better on Thursday, still stronger and more athletic, still playing that same style of defense that had led it to six wins in the past seven games.
Perhaps the most unexpected of all, Penn State led by so much that a late timeout would grant Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner, Carr and Josh Reaves a chance to leave the court to applause with time left to go in the game. Penn State basketball, emptied its bench against a Top 10 team because it was winning by so much. Garner would end the night with 13, Reaves 12, Watkins 11 points and 10 rebounds.
For the program the struggle now will be flushing the emotion from the system. The Nittany Lions have three games to go probably needing two more wins to make things interesting.
But for at least a few hours Penn State basketball will find itself a few steps closer to becoming the program it wants to be. And it will enjoy it.
"We've fallen off the cliff," Chambers said of the past. "We've gone left and right, but we've gotten up and kept climbing."
Maybe not so impossible after all.