Penn State forward Lamar Stevens sat at his Madison Square Garden locker dejected, head in his phone scrolling through texts and Twitter, trying to briefly take his mind off what happened on the court minutes before.
When the buzzer sounded at “The Mecca,” Penn State’s NCAA tournament hopes all but vanished. A 78-70 loss in the Big Ten semifinals to No. 8 Purdue turned the Nittany Lions from a party crasher to someone waiting at home, hoping and praying for an invite.
Stevens, like his teammates, thinks Penn State is a tourney team this year. “I think we proved that,” the 6-foot-8 sophomore said pointedly, sitting up straight and proud. The reality is, the NIT is the Nittany Lions’ overwhelmingly likely destination. Still, Stevens wasn’t wrong.
Penn State has proved it’s an NCAA Tournament-caliber team with NCAA tournament-quality players. With Stevens, star guard Tony Carr, lockdown defender Josh Reaves and more weapons at its disposal, Penn State is no longer a pushover. They haven’t been for months, but over the past three days, that became clearer to the country.
The Nittany Lions went out and earned any respect still not given — and as long as Carr doesn’t leave for the NBA, they showed they’re a lock for next year’s NCAA Tournament.
“To other people, I think that we proved that we can compete with the best in the country,” senior forward Julian Moore said. “But now, especially for the younger guys, they’ll come in next year, and they’ll know what it’s like to play on a Saturday in the Big Ten Tournament. That’s huge for us.”
Moore won’t be around to witness the true fruits of his labor. He, along with Shep Garner, will be watching, following along next year when the Nittany Lions make their long-awaited march to March Madness.
That isn’t to say this season’s run wasn’t legitimate. Ousting Ohio State three times was no fluke. Neither was winning four straight in January. And if Penn State beat Purdue — advancing to the conference final — it slides off the bubble in a good way.
Now, the falls are too much to overlook. Losses to Rider, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern and Maryland are nasty blemishes; the Broncs defeat made fans yet again call Pat Chambers’ job into question.
But the team that lost at home to a school from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is not the same team that played Saturday. It’s not the same team that went on a 15-3 run in the first half against the Boilermakers, powered by passion, hustle and defense. It’s not the same team that had thousands of fans buzzing at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Before first-team All-Big Ten guard Carsen Edwards broke open the game, Penn State wanted it more than Purdue.
“Toward the beginning of the season, we had to grow up a bit. Not to take possessions off, plays off, games off,” Moore said. “But as we learned from it, we stepped up after that and played the best we’ve ever played in the Big Ten since I’ve been here. It’s a growing process. We learn from it, and we change, and we get better.”
That is why Penn State has the look of a tourney-bound team next season.
The Nittany Lions improved as the season went on and turned into a dangerous team. Even without starting big man Mike Watkins, Penn State showed it this weekend.
“We really had to find ourselves and come together as a team and fight for one another,” Stevens added. “When we got to this tournament, we knew that it was a new start. It was a new season, really, and we gave it everything we had. We’re a really close group, and we banded together as brothers and fought to the end.”
The Nittany Lions are still holding out hope that this is the year they make the NCAA Tournament. No one in that locker room in Madison Square Garden wanted to acknowledge that the push was over.
“We want to make the tournament,” Carr said. “That’s what you play the season for.”
If Penn State lands in the NIT, the team’s mindset doesn’t change.
“We just want to keep making statements with our wins and our play,” Carr said.
Penn State did that in New York — and they’ll do it in the NCAA Tournament next year, too.