UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's the final week of the regular season and Penn State's last home outing has arrived at a point in time where there's hardly room for error. Even with the program's best record under head coach Patrick Chambers already locked up, the Nittany Lions still have plenty on the line.
Preparations for a mid-week Big Ten matchup against Michigan (22-7, 11-5) begin Tuesday as the Nittany Lions used Monday to refocus following their first loss in four games.
Prior to Wednesday's first whistle though, Penn State will take time to pay tribute to its seniors. In a class comprised of two, it's Penn State's 2018 seniors who paved the way for what can easily be described as a tangible buzz swirling through Happy Valley at the mere mention of men's hoops.
To understand their unique impact, look no further than where it all started.
Penn State opened the 2014-15 season with a 61-48 win against Morgan State. The box score listed 7,402 as the official attendance. The loudest voice in the Bryce Jordan Center that night was not Chambers, it was Kim Garner. Seated in section 107, Garner watched her son Shep make his collegiate debut with a 14-point performance against the Bears, second only to Nittany Lion leading scorer D.J. Newbill.
Garner was the first freshman to start a season opener since Trey Lewis in 2011.
Fast forward to January 27, 2018, when Penn State topped Rutgers 60-43 in front of the largest BJC hoops crowd since 2011. The voice from section 107 was arguably still the loudest.
It's not a hostile kind of voice though, instead the exact opposite, one of encouragement and often including a confident "We Are."
"You can't replace Ms. Garner," junior Josh Reaves said. "She's a voice you're always going to hear regardless of where you are. The energy she brings from the crowd alone, it just travels. I know she's got my back, even from the crowd."
Upon asking any Nittany Lion freshman why they chose to come to Penn State, the answer is always the same. Family.
Just ask Reaves, who noted he could feel the love from the Penn State coaching staff all the way from Fairfax, Virginia during his recruitment process.
"When I was playing with Team Takeover in AAU, I always heard about Shep Garner, Shep Garner, he's committed to Penn State. He can do this, he can do that." Reaves said. "I'd never seen him, I'd never watched him play and I'd never met him, but as soon as I came here for a game I watched him play and I was like, he lived up to the hype."
Garner finished his freshman season ranked second on the team and scoring and assists. As a sophomore, he came one triple shy of a Penn State record, shooting 8-for-12 from 3-point range with a career-high 30 points in a win against Boston College, which Chambers immediately notes as his best career outing.
By his junior year, he eclipsed 1,000-point mark in perhaps the most perfect of settings, knocking off Michigan State in front of a packed hometown crowd at the historic Palestra.
On the strength of a standout senior campaign, he has continued to climb the all-time career scoring record, recently cracking the top 10.
"He's been through a lot and he had many other options other than Penn State but he chose Penn State," Chambers said. "He too could have left in this world that we live in. He did not. He believed in what we were doing. He wanted to see this thing through. What a great example he is for the rest of our team and the guys who are coming in. That's a guy who I am always going to refer to, to say hey, this is what this guy did."
In mid-November 2015, Penn State announced the signing of its highest-ranked recruiting class in program history featuring Roman Catholic standouts Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr and Nazeer Bostick. All three from the same high school as three-time All-Catholic, all-state selection Shep Garner.
When Chambers is asked about recruiting success in Philadelphia though, there's the Garner's.
"If DJ [Newbill] opened the door, Shep threw that thing wide open," Chambers said.
Chambers certainly doesn't stop at Shep though, giving credit back to the one person responsible for shaping exactly the attitude you'd want in a Nittany Lion. Kim Garner.
"She helped recruit these kids," Chambers said. "That's what it is, the families, the players, all coming from the same area, from the same school. You can't deny that. What a special family."
At every pregame training table, Chambers picks a member of the program to lead the team in prayer. His most frequent selection, is Julian Moore.
Much like Garner, Moore, or "reverend Moore" as he's sometimes called by his teammates, has also seen it all. Maybe even a bit more for the fifth-year senior too, considering his freshman year was cut short by injury in 2013-14.
"The players respond to him and his message and his words," Chambers said. "It's just unbelievable. Regardless of how many minutes he has played, how many points he has played, he's going to leave a legacy with this program. One of a guy who is loyal, committed and who played his role to the best of his ability."
For Reaves, there's Garner's leadership, but there's nobody on the team more inspiring than Moore.
Among selecting all the best passages and quotes for the team prayer, it's Moore who knows just how to approach certain teammates when certain situations arise.
"I love him to death and I'll always have Julian's back no matter what," Reaves said. "As far as a leader, he knows what he's doing. He's trying to help out the other bigs and get with them to improve and you're seeing that each and every night."
Not one to focus on the headlines, Moore is making the most of seeing his final season out, averaging nearly 13 minutes per game across the last nine outings. In 14 minutes at No. 6 Purdue, Moore scored a Big Ten season-high six points.
Upon summer graduation prior to the 2017-18 season, the opportunity to pursue another program was certainly something he could have considered
had a chance to leave too," Chambers said. He's a throwback. He stayed. He
gutted this thing out."