men’s basketball

Penn State men’s basketball: Nittany Lions close out regular season against Minnesota

rgery@centredaily.comMarch 9, 2014 

— The nickname’s stuck since John Johnson’s days at Pittsburgh.

His teammates saw his ability to score in bunches and started to call him “the microwave.” But his Panthers career lasted just one season, so the moniker didn’t catch on publicly until he arrived at Penn State.

Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers often describes Johnson’s role as being the microwave off the bench, a role and nickname synonymous with former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson. Even Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan knew Johnson only as “the microwave” in preparing for the Badgers’ matchup with the Lions last Sunday.

“I think that’s my game, scoring the basketball,” Johnson said. “So night in and night out, I’m just trying to score the basketball. Some nights, it’s not gonna go that way, you’re gonna have off nights. You’re gonna have on nights.”

That’s how Johnson’s first season at Penn State has gone. He’s been electrifying at times, scoring with ease when he’s on, and equally mystifying at others, settling for tough shots on those off nights. The transfer is averaging 7.3 points and 20.3 minutes per game in 17 games after becoming eligible to play in late December.

Johnson and Penn State (15-15, 6-11 Big Ten) will close out the regular season against Minnesota (18-12, 7-10) at Williams Arena on Sunday at 5:15 p.m.

Johnson played in all 39 games for Pittsburgh as a freshman in 2011-12, averaging 4.2 points per game. He played in an exhibition game for the Panthers as a sophomore in 2012 before transferring to Penn State, where he started practicing with the team in December.

This season, he’s shown why he’s called the microwave, exploding to lead Penn State on runs by himself. But it’s also taken him time to settle into his role.

“I think he’s just comfortable out there,” Chambers said Tuesday, two days after the loss to Wisconsin. “You’re not going to notice this, but his defense was terrific. He had five rebounds. His switches were strong, they were solid. Little things that don’t show up in the box score, he did a really nice job of.”

He also did a nice job in his well-defined role as the team’s scorer off the bench.

Johnson scored his eight points in the second half to jolt the offense with Tim Frazier on the bench in foul trouble.

“That’s his job,” guard D.J. Newbill said. “He’s a good scorer. When he comes in and does things like that, it just takes pressure off guys like me, Tim, (Brandon Taylor) and guys who start. For him to come in and be that added threat, I think it causes trouble for other teams too.”

Johnson proved that when Penn State beat Nebraska 58-54 for its first Big Ten win of the season in January.

The guard wasted no time when he checked in during the first half, drilling a 3-pointer on his first possession to tie the game at 11-11. Three possessions later, he drove baseline, twisting his body to get a shot off while drawing a foul.

The early aggression was only a warm-up for his thrilling final minute of the half.

Johnson caught the ball on the right wing, gave a jab step and rose up for his second 3-pointer to cut Penn State’s deficit to 26-20 with 57 seconds left before the break. The shot ended a nearly nine-minute field-goal drought, which saw the Lions miss 13 straight shots.

On the ensuing defensive possession, Jordan Dickerson came up with a block, and Johnson picked up the loose ball. He darted down the court, going straight to the basket for a layup with 21 seconds left. Johnson scored 10 of Penn State’s 22 points in the first half.

“I need him to be that microwave off the bench where he’s gonna come in and score the basketball,” Chambers said.

Johnson knows he’s expected to provide an added scoring punch when he’s on the floor.

Coming off the bench doesn’t change his game — he’s always been a scorer — it just comes with a fitting nickname.

“It’s not really something that I have to get adjusted with,” Johnson said. “I already know what my role is on the team.”

Notes: Penn State’s Ross Travis and Graham Woodward are both Minnesota natives. Travis is from Chaska, which is 28 miles from Williams Arena, and Woodward grew up 12 miles away in Edina. … Penn State lost to Minnesota 68-65 on Jan. 8. The loss was part of the Lions’ 0-6 start in the Big Ten. Since then, Penn State it 6-5. … Andre Hollins leads Minnesota in scoring with 14.6 points per game. … The Golden Gophers are first in the conference in steals per game with 7.5 and rank fourth in 3-pointers made per game with 7.0. … The Big Ten tournament starts on Thursday in Indianapolis.

Follow Ryne Gery on Twitter @rgery

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