PSU basketball rocked a sold-out Palestra, strengthening connection with Philly hoops

The scene before tip-off inside what is known as The Cathedral of College Basketball, the Palestra

Over 8,700 college hoops fans crammed inside the most iconic venue the sport can over on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania Saturday afternoon to welcome Penn State and Iowa in a Big Ten clash. Both coaches have deep local roots and Penn State’s roster showcases at least seven players from in and around the Philly area – most notably senior forward Lamar Stevens of Roman Catholic.

Stevens has been the main catalyst for Head Coach Patrick Chambers and is seen as the team’s go-to-guy on and off the court. But perhaps more impressive than Stevens alone is the collection of talented players from the Philly area that make up the bulk of the production for Chambers’ Penn State team.

Chambers himself is a Philly native and is never one to shy away from it. He’s from Newtown Square, PA and has both played and coached for two of the best Philly college coaches ever prior to taking over the job at Penn State in 2011. He played point guard at Philadelphia University under Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Herb Magee as a walk-on before earning a scholarship and a starting point guard spot by senior year. His first coaching experiences were under the wings of none other than Jay Wright, which is enormously important considering Wright just earned AP Coach of the Decade.

Chambers earned his first head coaching job at Boston Univeristy for a few years before finding a comfortable home in Happy Valley, where he began his plan to build bridges from Philly to PSU. Slowly but surely, it’s been fruitful.

Almost half the team is comprised of local talent and it’s a trend that does not seem to be ending any time soon.

What’s the point of all this? Well, Philly has elite basketball in its neighborhoods and that should come as no surprise. What is surprising is Chambers’ ability to extract that talent and pull it towards PSU – a college with a large southeastern PA presence both in student body and alumni network at large.

So Saturday afternoon was a celebration of sorts more than an early season conference clash against the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour spoke briefly prior to the game and addressed the crowd. She thanked them for showing up in full force (the crowd was almost all PSU favored – no surprise there). But more importantly, she explained the purpose of having a PSU game at the iconic Philly basketball Mecca that is the Palestra.

It’s simply a token of gratitude to the Philly area Penn State alumni, current and future students, and fans in general. It’s a late Christmas present to not only those Philly area Penn Staters but to Chambers and his team as well.

And it was a warm welcome indeed. The on-court temperatures inside the Palestra reached 80 degrees. Players were battling every minute for every loose ball. And the crowd was engaged from the opening tip.

Penn State struggled mightily to contain 6’10” 260lb center Luka Garza, who practically kept Iowa alive all by himself. He was a beast. Penn State center and Philly native Mike Watkins was outplayed all night showing signs of sluggishness and inconsistency – both have plagued him in his up and down career at Penn State. To make matters worse, Iowa has a sharpshooter named Joe Wieskamp who finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds and shot 50% from beyond the arc nailing five key three-pointers. Garza would finish with an MVP like statline, totaling 34 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks.

But other than those two, Iowa lacked the scoring depth to take over the game in the second half.

Penn State entered the second half up just one point and for a moment midway through the second, the crowd atmosphere dropped off, Stevens found himself in foul trouble, Watkins remained ineffective on both ends of the court, and Penn State couldn’t find an answer to stop Garza.

But slowly, Penn State battled back. It was as if they had enough of Garza and his overpowering style of play on the low block.

Penn State’s bench scoring was the ultimate difference-maker. Isiah Brockington relentlessly attacked the rim with decisive cuts both on and off the ball and contributed two key steals of his own. He would finish as the team’s leading scorer with 23 (a new season-high). Curtis Jones Jr dropped four key three-pointers off the bench totaling 16 points and Seth Lundy, the freshman from Alabama contributed a hearty seven points of the bench.

PSU tallied 46 of their 89 points from bench players. Which is massively important considering the lack of production from Watkins – who scored just four points and was in foul trouble much of the game. It’s an even more impressive feat when you consider Stevens was limited to just 16 points due to early foul trouble as well.

It came down to the wire, as you would hope for when attending a game at the historic Palestra aka the Cathedral of College Basketball. Penn State was able to provide yet another wonderful game in the history books for not only the Palestra, but PSU basketball fans in and around Philly too.

Penn State should hopefully continue this tradition, traveling southeast to Philly each year. Because after all, it’s important to remember where you come from, and Coach Chambers will never forget his roots.

Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports