Shep Garner hears jokes about his defense from his Penn State teammates all the time.
You don’t play defense, the Nittany Lions tell him. You just want to shoot, they crack.
But his teammates were praising the senior guard’s defense in the locker room after No. 7-seed Penn State’s 69-68 win over No. 2-seed Ohio State on Friday night at the Big Ten tournament. The Nittany Lions stunned the Buckeyes with Josh Reaves’ game-winning dunk with 3.1 seconds left at Madison Square Garden.
Those final two points may not have been possible without Garner’s steal with 16 seconds left.
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Garner planned on letting his teammates know about his defensive play.
“I get to talk a little bit of trash tonight,” Garner said.
Garner has made his mark with his long-range shot in Penn State’s wins over Northwestern and Ohio State, leading to a matchup with No. 3-seed Purdue in the conference tournament semifinals at 4:30 p.m. Saturday. He hit four 3-pointers to score 12 points in the win over Northwestern on Thursday night and followed that up with three 3-pointers and 13 points against the Buckeyes on Friday night.
But he’s also made crucial plays on the defensive end in both games, taking a charge late in the game against Northwestern and coming up with that steal against Ohio State.
“We call Shep the ‘Ice Man,’” Penn State guard Tony Carr said. “He put people on ice. He came up and made a great play. He dove and just shows his toughness and his senior leadership.”
Carr said Garner has been making those plays all season, but that wasn’t the player he knew before he arrived at Penn State. In high school, Carr said Garner never dove for loose balls or took charges.
Garner said he didn’t really play defense as a freshman for the Nittany Lions, either.
“I tried. I tried,” Garner said. “But the habits — I didn’t have the habits yet. But as I got older, I got better, so as of now, I’m a good defender.”
And just like he’s been hearing jokes all season, he’s been constantly telling his teammates he’s one of the top defenders on the team. Reaves, a Big Ten all-defensive team selection, said Garner proved it Friday night.
Nittany Lions forward Julian Moore agreed.
“Obviously, he’s one of the best defenders on the team,” Moore said before adding, “Second to Josh, of course.”
Garner made the biggest defensive play of the game against Ohio State with Penn State trailing 68-67 in the final minute. Garner switched onto Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop off of a screen, guarding him at the top of the key as the clock ticked under 25 seconds.
“I knew I was at a disadvantage,” Garner said. “He’s 6-8. I’m 6-1. So if I let him do what he wanted, have his way, he was going to shoot over me, so I had to get up under him a little bit, make him a little bit uncomfortable.”
Bates-Diop, who ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring this season and finished with 25 points Friday night, dribbled to the left — and Garner was ready. The Penn State guard said Bates-Diop’s tendency to go left was in the coaches’ scouting report, so he looked to force the Buckeye to spin back to his right. When Bates-Diop did, Garner was ready to go for the steal.
Garner poked the ball loose twice before falling on the floor to gain possession.
He got the ball to Moore to set up the game-winning sequence on the offensive end.
“I want to do whatever I have to do to win these games,” Garner said.