NEW YORK - Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers had his concerns ahead of Tuesday's NIT semifinal matchup at Madison Square Garden. Coming off a full seven-day layoff, there is of course the uncertainty of a challenge really facing every team.
Ask any Nittany Lion though and there was simply no reason to be concerned. For sophomore Tony Carr, at this point in the season, there's no need for pep talks or motivational moments.
Stepping on to the court at the world's most famous arena, Penn State did so with one goal in mind.
"We were ready," Penn State senior Shep Garner said. "We knew that Mississippi State is a good team, an SEC team, and we didn't want to get caught on our heels. We wanted to bring the fight and we came out on a run."
Penn State and Mississippi State kept it close in the earliest part of the first quarter, arriving at the evening's first media timeout tied up, 9-9. The Nittany Lions managed to pull away, leading by two, 13-11, with less than three minutes remaining in the first quarter.
In front of yet another mostly blue and white crowd though, Penn State wouldn't disappoint, taking control with a 24-0 scoring streak lasting 16:32. The Nittany Lions surged ahead by as many as 26 points, unleashing from the perimeter with five triples during the stretch, including three from Garner.
"When we go on runs like that, we know that we're clicking on all cylinders on the defensive end, that's where it starts," Garner said. "When we play like that and we get in transition, we're tough to beat. We all get running and knock some threes down, that's tough."
Neither Garner nor Carr or Stevens or Reaves had any idea they were on such a streak. It didn't matter though. It didn't matter because it was all about having fun, playing with a level of confidence that Chambers noted has reached its highest level of the season.
"It started really after we beat Temple," Chambers said. "I think they got really confident. More confident, playing loose, enjoying themselves out there, having fun. At Notre Dame, Marquette, you could tell they were having a blast, enjoying it."
Penn State departed for the locker room at halftime, the Nittany Lions were
commanding a 42-23 lead. It's an advantage though didn't exactly have Chambers
letting out a sigh of relief.
"I've had some nightmares throughout my career - high school, college, as a player, and I've had some nightmares, Northwestern, Michigan State," Chambers said. "Those things go through your head, like we're up 20, but we've got to keep it at 20. If it gets any lower then they're going to find momentum and confidence and they are going to regain this. I was really proud of our guys, we got big time stops when we needed it. We made the necessary plays to keep that lead near 20."
Chambers' message was simple, keep locked in on the Nittany Lion foundation, defending and rebounding.
Penn State wouldn't let its foot off gas pedal, coming out of the locker room with the same fire.
The second half was perhaps more about milestones though, as Garner surpassed Penn State's Pete Lisicky (1995-98) for first all-time on the Nittany Lion career 3-pointers list.
Just a few minutes later, he drained his sixth triple of the night to set the Penn State single game NIT record. His 3-point of course, widening the Nittany Lion advantage to the largest of the night, 52-25.
Garner joined Carr and sophomore Lamar Stevens in double figures, finishing with 18 points. Carr led the team with 21 points while Stevens had 17, finishing 6-for-10 from the field with a team-high eight rebounds.
"Shep is a great person, he's a great player," Stevens said. "Guys like that deserve to go down in the record books and have successful careers. Shep completely deserves it, he works really hard. I'm happy for him."
For Chambers though, Garner is also a Nittany Lion who took a chance on Penn State.
"He believed in us and his first few years obviously didn't go the way we all wanted it to go," Chambers said. "Man did he stick it out and he persevered and he was able to bring some really good players with him. It's so awesome to see him leave such an amazing legacy for Penn State basketball."
His legacy, or rather, his storybook ending as he calls it, isn't over just yet.
"The only thing that can make it better is winning a championship and that's what we want to do," Garner said. "That's what we came here to do. We came here to do that, that's our goal and we won't be satisfied until we do that."
For now, it's rest and recovery for the Nittany Lions, who will turn their focus toward No. 2 seed Utah in Thursday's finals, set for 7 p.m. on ESPN2.