VIDEO: Locker Room Interviews from the Big Ten Tournament
INDIANAPOLIS - It's been said time and time again about a Patrick Chambers-led Penn State team, but with the way Thursday's Big Ten Tournament second round matchup against Ohio State transpired, it needs to be said again.
The Nittany Lions (16-16) left every ounce of effort they had in the tank on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse floor in a 79-75 setback to seventh-seeded Ohio State (20-12). Penn State has nothing to hang its hat about following another resilient showing during the stretch run of the 2015-16 season.
The result is not what anyone in the emotional locker room had hoped for, but the groundwork has been laid for what is going to be a bright future for a men's hoops program on the rise.
Penn State played its best basketball during the last five weeks of the season, which included four victories in its last five home games and seven total conference wins for only the fifth time since 2000. That stretch culminated with a battle in Indianapolis.
"I'm proud of my team this year, the way they competed, the way they stuck together," said Chambers. "Our schedule wasn't easy, especially the first 10. And they were a determined bunch. I really, really enjoyed coaching this group. And they showed you today why. Ohio State looked like they were going to take it and run away with it. We came right back and threw a couple of punches and took the lead. That's what this team did for most of the year. They just kept punching back."
Thursday night's game was one of runs. The Nittany Lions built a 35-25 lead in the first half thanks to hot shooting from the perimeter. The Lions started 7-for-11 from distance and jetted out to a double-digit edge.
However, the complexion of the game changed in the final four minutes of the first half when Ohio State closed on a 9-2 run to set the halftime score at 37-34, in favor of the Lions.
Brandon Taylor scored the opening bucket of the second half, but then the Buckeyes rattled off the next 14 points to claim a nine-point lead. Penn State clawed back to within three, but the Buckeyes pushed the margin back to nine with 11:55 to play (56-47).
The Lions were far from done.
They roared back in the form of a 20-10 rally en route to re-taking the lead at 67-66 on two Shep Garner free throws at the 4:12 mark.
That would be the high point of the half, though; as the Buckeyes scored the next seven points and never looked back on the way to the four-point victory.
Garner was the star of the night for the Nittany Lions, pouring in 25 points on just 16 shot attempts (9-16). The sophomore guard was aggressive on both ends of the floor and willed the Lions for much of the night with his relentless approach. Garner scored or assisted on 14 of Penn State's 26 made field goals.
"(Shep) deserves a lot of the credit," Chambers said. "He is top 15 in a lot of categories in the Big Ten, and nobody talks about him...Just shows you what kind of leader we have for our future in Shep Garner. Not only did he do that, but look at the game he had. Played terrific. He almost played 40 minutes."
You can't begin to talk about the growth Garner and his fellow young teammates made this season without talking about the men who guided them. Garner said that the team learned a lot about how to compete in games and what type of work ethic it takes to be successful in the Big Ten. He attributed all of that to Taylor and the senior class.
"They taught me so much. In the two years I have been here, I've learned so much from Devin (Foster) all the way up to BT," said Garner. "I appreciate them. They came in to practice and set the tone every day. They worked so hard. They work so hard for us. Everything that they put into this program, I just wanted to come out here and give it my best fight. Just came up short."
Taylor is a guy fans can be proud of for the way he battled. When he arrived on campus, no one could have envisioned the type of player he would become. Penn State would not have earned its first bye at the Big Ten Tournament, won 16 games two-straight seasons or seven conference games this season without his leadership. There was not a night on the schedule where Taylor didn't pour his heart and soul into the betterment of the program.
"He has left an imprint on this program, much like D.J. (Newbill) and Tim (Frazier)," said Chambers. "His leadership in the locker room was second to none. Terrific. That was our biggest concern coming into this year, who is going to be our leaders? We had a leadership council. But he emerged and he wanted the torch; he wanted to lead. A little bit uncharacteristic of him. And he came out of his comfort zone and did it anyway, and he became a terrific leader."
The future of Penn State men's basketball is on the upswing, and a huge piece of that can be attributed to this year's senior class and especially the effort and determination of Taylor.
"I just hope that guys are able to say that I taught them (how to compete) and that I helped them grow," Taylor said. "That's all I wanted to do for my last year. The wins really didn't matter. I just wanted to help everybody else behind me grow and get better."
Taylor left his mark, and the program is in good hands thanks to the type of foundation he laid.
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