PHILADELPHIA - To Penn State freshman Lamar Stevens, it felt like home. For Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers, it was a magical experience. Inside Penn's historic Palestra on a snowy afternoon in the heart of Philadelphia, Penn State men's basketball (10-7, 2-2) knocked off Michigan State (11-6, 3-1), 72-63 to earn its first win against the Spartans since 2011, and the first of the Chambers era.
Even 22-year Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo noted that despite a loss, Saturday's electric Big Ten outing in a building that first opened its doors in 1927, would be a memory-making experience he'll cherish anyway.
Having regrouped and reset from a tough loss on the road at Michigan a mere three days earlier, the Nittany Lions roamed the halls of the Palestra yesterday, with a few even climbing the famous "Rocky steps" at the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art this morning.
With a 2017 roster featuring six Philadelphia natives and Chambers himself calling the City of Brotherly Love home, the Nittany Lions put on a Saturday afternoon show packed with toughness and all things true to a gritty Penn State basketball squad, in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 9,000 fans, clad in mostly Blue and White.
"These kids will never forget this experience as long as they live and it was nice to come out on top for sure," Chambers said.
The Philly flavor was plentiful from the start as Mike Watkins came off the bench to slam home the first of six dunks on the day, sparking a streak that he finished off with a pair of layups following a Payton Banks block. Just the beginning of what was to come, Penn State was already leading by six, 12-6 at the first media timeout.
Michigan State came storming back, trimming the deficit to as few as two twice. With the Nittany Lions up by two, 16-14, it was another dunk, this time by Julian Moore, that struck the spark. Moore's dunk opened up an 11-2 streak, which featured a pair of layups from Moore and Tony Carr before a block from Josh Reaves and Bank's first triple of the day ignited the crowd.
took its first double digit lead of the day following another triple from
Banks, who just a year ago helped the Nittany Lions to a 17-point comeback win
against Drexel in the Palestra with a then-career high 20 points.
Although the Spartans narrowed the gap to five with a little more than two minutes to play in the opening frame, 37-32, back-to-back buckets from Stevens followed by a trey from Carr sent the Nittany Lions into the locker room leading by 12, 44-32.
Penn State shot 60 percent from the field in the first half and 50 percent from behind the arc, on the strength of five of its "Philly 6" Nittany Lions, who accounted for 34-of-44 first-half points.
Reaves, who had been relatively quiet during the opening half, came out of the break with an emphatic slam, the first of three second-half dunks.
Following the hot start in the second half, the Nittany Lions fell into a bit of a slump, as the Spartans cut the advantage to five, before Stevens put an end to a nearly 3-minute Penn State scoring drought with a jumper to make it 54-57.
Michigan State arrived within five once more, just before Reaves slammed home two more dunks in between a single Spartan free throw, sending the Nittany Lions ahead by eight, with MSU only threatening once more.
Finishing with six points, a team-high six assists, four blocks, two steals and two blocks, Reaves' energy was nearly palpable to fans throughout afternoon, as well as imperative to his teammates.
"Josh only had six points," questioned Carr at the postgame press conference glancing up from his stat sheet. "That definitely didn't determine the outcome of the game, he just does so much all over the court, he's constantly talking, he's the best defender on the team, he just kind of makes up for everybody's mistakes, so it's constant effort and energy," Carr said.
Chambers only echoed Carr and Stevens.
"Six assists, two blocks two steals, man they were huge, they were really big plays and he wasn't scoring so it's a credit to him," Chambers said.
Although a seemingly perfect ending to a homecoming for a majority of the roster, it didn't come without diligent preparation and a business-like approach.
Earlier this week, it was Chambers who noted that he'd certainly be addressing the possibility of homecoming emotions posing a challenge to his young Nittany Lions. Three of those Nittany Lions (Nazeer Bostick, Carr and Stevens) had seemingly just visited the Palestra not even a year ago as the trio led Roman Catholic to a Philadelphia Catholic League title last March.
Led by Chambers though, he instilled in his team that regardless of who might be filling the stands and no matter what the distractions might be, the Nittany Lions would approach the Spartan matchup with the mindset to play for the guys to the left and to the right, with toughness.
"Coach did a great job handling our emotions, telling us to focus on the game and just look around at the locker room and focus on each other, your teammates and your brothers," Stevens said. "Coach did a really great job, we followed what he did and we focused on each other and our brothers and it was successful."
Every Nittany Lion to see the court grabbed at least one rebound, led by nine from Watkins and six apiece from Carr and Stevens
"We got stops and we got rebounds, and that's one heck of a rebounding team and we won the rebounding battle," Chambers said.
For Izzo, it was Penn State's toughness that impressed him, as the Nittany Lions shot 46 percent from the field, the highest of any of Michigan State's Big Ten opponents this year.
Fittingly, three Philly natives led the Nittany Lions with double figure scoring. Stevens led the way with 18 points while Carr finished with 14 including two triples. Watkins and Banks (a California native), added 11 points each, with Banks also knocking down a pair of 3-pointers.
Now its back to the Bryce Jordan Center for the Nittany Lions, with a week off to prep for Minnesota. Penn State hosts the Golden Gophers Saturday, Jan. 14 at noon in the BJC.