UNIVERSITY PARK — Geno Thorpe stepped up when Penn State needed him against Hampton.
With the Pirates still within four points in the second half, the freshman guard keyed a crucial Nittany Lions run.
His tip-in of his own miss pushed the lead to six.
His diving save of a loose ball turned into a transition dunk by D.J. Newbill to extend it to eight. His free throws gave Penn State a 10-point cushion with five-plus minutes to play.
With Hampton still within two points with 4.3 seconds left, Thorpe knocked down a pair of free throws to ensure any desperation shot by the Pirates would be meaningless.
Penn State held off Hampton (18-13) for a 69-65 win Wednesday night in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Nittany Lions (16-17) will take on Siena, which beat Stony Brook 66-55 in its first-round matchup, in the quarterfinals Monday in Albany, N.Y.
Thorpe and fellow freshman guard Graham Woodward went 5-for-6 at the line in the final 22 seconds to seal the win.
“It gives me a look at how it’s gonna be for next year,” Newbill said. “With Tim going, those guys are already stepping up to the plate this year, kind of making big plays and big free throws down the stretch, it gets me excited.”
Thorpe was one of four Penn State players to score in double figures, finishing with 10 points. Newbill led with 19 points in 23 minutes, Brandon Taylor had 14 and Tim Frazier added 10. Hampton’s backcourt duo Brian Darden and Deron Powers scored 22 and 19 points, respectively.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers used the game to get his younger players experience in unfamiliar situations, allowing Woodward to inbound the ball in the final minute and trusting center Jordan Dickerson late in the game.
“It was good for me to test the waters a little bit,” Chambers said. “Maybe a little too close, as usual, for comfort.”
Penn State took control from the start, building an 8-0 lead and forcing a Hampton timeout less than two minutes into the game.
Frazier and Newbill each connected from beyond the arc. The Pirates missed their first three shots from the field.
But then Hampton found its stroke from 3-point range and turned it into a game.
Darden drilled four 3s and hit three free throws, scoring 15 of his team’s first 20 points to almost single-handedly keep Hampton within one point midway through the first half.
Penn State rebuilt its lead to 33-25 by halftime, but the Nittany Lions never pulled away in the second half.
“They did a good job at their scheme,” Frazier said, “what they pride themselves on doing, playing physical, playing hard defense and talking. They did a great job. They fought us all the way to the end.”
The hard, physical defense took its toll on Penn State as the Pirates took their first lead of the game with 11:17 remaining.
After cutting the deficit to four points, Hampton locked in defensively. Woodward was struggling against pressure when Pirates guard Ramon Mercado darted to the top of the key in a steal attempt. Woodward was whistled for a foul after trying to push Mercado away.
Powers swished a short jumper to bring Hampton within two. Pirates forward Emmanuel Okoroba finished underneath to tie it and force a Penn State timeout. And a missed Newbill 3 turned into a right-handed, breakway dunk for Hampton’s Breon Key.
The Pirates led 43-41. The Hampton bench was jumping up and down. The Pirates were brimming with confidence forcing their “ugly” style of play on the Nittany Lions.
“We don’t feel like we look very good, and it takes the life out of them,” Hampton coach Edward Joyner said. “They like to get after you, so we encouraged it. We encouraged the excitement that you saw, the jumping up and down, all that.
“That’s what we encourage because we feel like we play better, and we feel like we get into our ballgame. Most teams don’t like to play that way.”
But Penn State recovered. The Pirates’ lead was short-lived.
Newbill hit a jumper to tie it. Frazier scored four straight points to give the Nittany Lions a 47-43 lead.
And with Hampton still lurking minutes later, Thorpe came through. The freshman helped turn a four-point lead into a 10-point advantage.
When that lead was down to three with 22.4 seconds left, Thorpe hit a pair of free throws.
When it was sliced to two points with 4.3 seconds left, Thorpe calmly knocked down both again, giving the Nittany Lions four players in double figures.
“I think you’re getting a taste of the future,” Chambers said of the scoring balance. “I think that’s what you’re seeing.”