UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The word respond has been perhaps a little too frequent for Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers this early in the season. Much to the contrast of last year though, the response from the Nittany Lions has been reason to be excited.
Friday evening, Penn State topped Columbia 79-65 inside the Bryce Jordan Center, having to do so without the help of two major contributors in Tony Carr and Josh Reaves. In its fourth game in the last eight days, conditions were prime for things to go awry.
"With all the obstacles and challenges that we have faced in the last 48 hours, with injuries and illness and the way those kids came out and competed after the Montana game with a quick turn-around was just fun to watch," Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers said. "It was fun to be a part of."
To Chambers, Penn State has been rising to the call long before Friday's tipoff. Take the Montana game, where Carr departed mid-game with an injury. Montana came as close as three late in the second half, but the Nittany Lions regrouped to finish with a 70-57 win Wednesday night.
Friday's circumstances grew even trickier as a freak-like injury sidelined both Carr and Reaves.
"Today we were like, `Tony is not going to play,' but did they respond," Chambers said. "Even when Josh went down I didn't see anybody poor-mouthing about it, heads down, no deflation at all. We came out and we competed, and they competed really hard that first eight to 10 minutes. Those to me are critical because that is what is going to shape us the rest of the season. That they have faith and confidence in the bench now and they are earning trust with me. So I have faith and confidence to put them in in critical times."
Freshman Jamari Wheeler sparked the Nittany Lion offense early off the bench, muscling his way inside before dishing to Nazeer Bostick for a one-handed slam, brining Penn State within one, 5-3.
Shep Garner opened up the scoring with his first triple of the night to give the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game, 7-5. Penn State quickly took off on a 15-0 run, holding Columbia scoreless for nearly seven minutes, building the advantage to as many as 14, 22-8, with 8:10 remaining in the first half.
As foul trouble plagued the Nittany Lions, Columbia came battling back, cutting the lead with a pair of triples, 27-17, to arrive within 10. A pair of free throws from Satchel Pierce brought the Nittany Lions back up by 12, 29-17, but Columbia was hardly finished, responding with an 18-9 run, including a 10-0 run in the final 2:22 to enter halftime trailing by only three, 38-35.
"We had a couple guys in foul trouble early in the first half, so we knew that we would get them back in the second half and we would turn it up a little in the second half, just because we knew we would play better defense and concentrate more on defense in the second half. We came out and played more confidently, applied more pressure, and let the chips fall where they may," Garner said.
Garner came out of the break in the second half with a pair of jumpers before a Lamar Stevens 3-ball widened the margin to nine, 49-40. With nearly 13 minutes remaining, it was Watkins who brought it home for the Nittany Lions, as Penn State ran away with the score on a 14-0 run.
"I thought our team did a really good job picking him up at halftime," Chambers said. "Our staff did as well. We were pumping him up and saying `let's go, you are rested, you are fresh, let's go dominate this second half,' and it's a maturity level. He has to keep getting better at it because it is going to happen again. He is going to pick up two and he is going to learn how to play with them."
Watkins scored 11 points and grabbed nine boards, blocking four shots in just the second half alone to pace the Nittany Lions to the win. Watkins also reached a milestone block with career block No. 100 coming midway through the second half.
We admire the Columbia defender for at least thinking he could stop Mike Watkins.-- Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) November 18, 2017
To no one's surprise, he was unsuccessful. 😃 pic.twitter.com/7UKPp3ry5e
Leading the team effort though was Garner, who combined for a season-high 26 points, nailing five triples, alongside taking command of the court.
"We have a lot of confidence in all of our players, so when someone goes down, we just talk about next man up," Stevens said. "Shep [Garner] being a leader, I knew he would have a big game, so I'm happy for him."