By Arielle Sargent, GoPSUSports.com
WASHINGTON - Penn State men's basketball's 2016-17 season came to a close in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 13 Nittany Lions fell to fifth-seeded Michigan State, 78-51 at the Verizon Center.
Opposite of Penn State's fast start Wednesday night, it was the Spartans who came out firing, using an 11-0 run in the early part of the first half to construct a double digit advantage, 14-6. Shep Garner answered back for the Nittany Lions, nailing his first triple before Terrence Samuel went 2-2 from the free throw line, working to close the gap.
Penn State struggled to settle into a rhythm though, as Michigan State dialed up the speed with a 12-0 run to surge ahead, 30-13. Unfazed, the Nittany Lions buckled down and battled back with a 12-3 run, featuring a 6-6 showing from the free throw line to arrive within nine.
Still the Spartans returned, using a 9-0 run to enter halftime with a 45-27 advantage.
"We needed more energy, more juice, more fire, we needed some baskets to go early," Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers said. "I knew that the first four minutes, eight minutes were huge where we had a few of those in and outs, in and outs and then we got a little bit deflated, then we got it back to nine and I thought boy we're in great shape and then they went on another run."
Despite a first half featuring back and forth runs, Penn State simply couldn't match the Spartan scoring streaks out of the break as Michigan State maintaining the double digit advantage to the final buzzer.
"They outplayed us," freshman Tony Carr said. "They played harder, they sprinted harder, they ran their cuts harder, they just did everything harder than us and that cost us."
Carr and fellow freshman Lamar Stevens did all they could to power the offense, combining for 32 of Penn State's 51 points. Carr finished with 16 points, including a 9-for-11 showing from the free throw line in addition to collecting five rebounds. Stevens also led the team with 16 points, registering 12 points in the second half alone.
For Chambers though, the Nittany Lions needed the type of balanced offensive performance from Wednesday, but such has been the case this season, Penn State couldn't carry over the consistency.
"This is a process, an absolute process for this team," Chambers said. "You can't speed up the process. We had a great day yesterday, celebratory day. This is the mental toughness part of it, the inexperience part of it that we have to go through."
Inexperience has plagued the Nittany Lions all season, as Penn State's standout freshman class was thrust into some serious on the job training. Making an immediate impact, the freshman class held its own, contributing just over 50 percent of Penn State's offensive production this year.
Carr and Stevens led the way with at least 400 points on the year, led by 13.2 points per game from Carr and 12.7 from Stevens. On the defensive side of things, redshirt freshman Mike Watkins grabbed a team-high and record setting 267 rebounds, leading the team with 8.1 per game to go along with 90 blocks.
Although the inexperience stings at times, there's no denying that the future of Penn State basketball is perhaps brighter than its ever been.
"I would say the future is very bright for us, just knowing that we have the talent and the determination to just do positive things is great so moving forward we're going to keep working our hardest and making this team the best that we can," Carr said.
Nothing but support surrounds the group of rookies, who will soon be sophomores.
"We're a lot closer than everyone thinks," Josh Reaves said. "We're right there, we're about to turn the corner I think. We just need to be a lot more mentally tough and physically tough to be able to push through all the injuries, all the soreness, all the fatigue. When we get there, it's going to be exciting to watch with us."
Evident in the leadership and preparation, the dedication from the freshman class has proved not only infectious but inspiring, especially as it relates to the future.
"I can't wait to get back in the gym with these guys, I know how hungry they are, I know how much they want to win and it drives us all," Reaves said.
As the process moves along, so will the Nittany Lions, and as Chambers notes, he'll get back to work by making a complete evaluation of the entire team.
Starting now, Penn State will put this loss in the past and continue building off of what it's already started.
"We're a young team, but we have great leaders and we're going to get back up tomorrow and get ready for next year and do everything we can to prepare," Stevens said. "We take every loss, every win as a learning lesson and we're going to build off of that for next year."