PARK, Pa. - Penn State sophomore Lamar
Stevens said it's his head coaches' favorite word - respond.
That's exactly what the Nittany Lions did Friday evening, bouncing back from a tough road loss at Maryland just days earlier with energy and enthusiasm.
"Sometimes after a loss like that, where you're winning for 36 minutes and you come up short, it can fracture a young team, and that's something we talked about for two days, about toughness, about will and about just taking little steps," Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers said. "We don't have to take a big, giant step. That's not how this works. Take small steps and continue to fight and compete on every possession."
Dialed in from Wednesday film session to the first whistle on Friday, Chambers had a good feeling heading into the matchup.
"You have to have a short memory when you're playing this game and that's something our team is really developing," Stevens said. "We got back to work the next day and worked even harder and for the next two days, we worked hard, so I think it was able to really show tonight."
Although leading early, Penn State found itself with a one-point advantage, 7-6, before a bucket from Stevens and a steal and score on a breakaway from freshman Jamari Wheeler sparked some momentum. Wheeler then forced a Wildcat turnover to send the Nittany Lions into the first break leading by five, 11-6.
"Jamari is just an unbelievable leader and energy guy, juice guy, competitive fire, I can't say enough about what he does for our team," Chambers said. "He's a selfless teammate and he wants to play great."
Wheeler came off the bench to dish out a season-high five assists, leading the team with three steals.
Penn State grew its advantage as high as 16 before closing out the first half with a seven-point lead, 41-34, despite a late Northwestern triple at the buzzer.
The Nittany Lions though, shot a blazing 71 percent from the floor in the first half, led by 16 points from Stevens and 11 from Mike Watkins, marking the best shooting clip in a half in 11 seasons.
"Breaking down the film from last year, I thought we were a little too stagnant on the offensive end and we made sure that wasn't going to happen," Chambers said. "We had great movement, great flow. I think Lamar [Stevens] did a great job of picking and choosing his spots. I think his teammates did a really good job of finding him."
Stevens continued to roll out of the half, opening the second frame with an alley-oop slam before a pair of Watkins free throws.
The Nittany Lions quickly fell into a three-minute scoring drought as the Wildcats chipped away at the advantage. Northwestern narrowed the gap to as few as three, 47-44, helped out by back-to-back 3-pointers with 15:08 left to play.
It was a 9-0 Nittany Lion run though that Northwestern head coach Chris Collins called the backbreaker.
Penn State's scoring streak featured a pair of Stevens dunks, capped off by a Tony Carr free throw to send the advantage back into double figures.
"Again, that 'r' word, responding with adversity," Chambers said. "Some of these kids have never truly faced adversity. Adversity is losing that game in the last four minutes at Maryland. How are you going to respond? They responded great. They cut it to three, I saw positive body language. Maryland at four minutes, I didn't see positive body language when they tied it up. This was a 3-point game, a one possession game and I saw them play with a little chip on their shoulder and that's what we're going to need now for the rest of the season."
The Wildcats answered with two consecutive treys once again but the Nittany Lions wouldn't let Northwestern any closer than six- responding to each challenge to close out the win, improving to 2-2 in conference play.
"Responding to him, it's responding to all the adversity," Stevens said when asked about his head coaches' thoughts on the word. "I think we're really starting to take shape and I think it's a credit to our leaders, Josh [Reaves] and Shep [Garner], because they control the locker room, they really help the young guys, and we're young, so they help us too, so credit to them."
Stevens would hardly take any credit for his career performance, registering his first 30-point performance, shooting 14-for-19 from the field.
Watkins also put on another consistent display with 18 points and 17 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season. Watkins stuffed his stat sheet with four blocks, shooting an impressive 5-for-6 from the field and 8-for-11 from the free throw line, also a career mark from the charity stripe.