Shep Garner received some advice from former Penn State guard Talor Battle after asking him about his experience in the NIT.
Battle was part of the Nittany Lions’ team that won the tournament in 2009, beating Baylor 69-63 in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.
“He told me it was going to be tough,” Garner said. “This is a big-time tournament. Good teams figure out ways to get it done, and it comes down to your leadership.”
Garner and the Nittany Lions reached the NIT semifinals after a tough win over Temple at home and a pair of road wins over Notre Dame and Marquette. No. 4-seed Penn State (24-13) will take on No. 4-seed Mississippi State (25-11) at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. No. 2-seed Utah (22-11) will face No. 4-seed Western Kentucky (27-10) at 7 p.m. in the other semifinal.
The Nittany Lions now have a chance to win an NIT title like Battle and the 2009 team.
“They’re one of the best teams to ever play here,” Penn State forward Lamar Stevens said. “Being able to try to do something that they did and make it this far is a huge accomplishment for us and a huge jump forward for this program.”
In 2009, Penn State earned an overtime win over George Mason before beating Rhode Island, Florida and Notre Dame to advance to the championship game against Baylor. Jamelle Cornley earned NIT MVP honors, while Battle was on the all-tournament team.
“You see the pictures and you see what they did in 2009 to win a championship,” said Patrick Chambers, whose tenure as head coach began two years after that NIT title run. “Talor led them all the way — exciting time for Penn State basketball with all the buses and all the students and Penn State took over MSG. “And that’s what I’m hoping for on Tuesday night.”
Scouting Mississippi State
Mississippi State will present a unique challenge for the Nittany Lions.
“We got to bring our best,” Chambers said. “This is a team we really haven’t seen before because of how quick their guards are and their length. They’ve got some shot-blockers inside.”
The Bulldogs will have 6-foot-11 forward Abdul Ado and 6-foot-10 forward Aric Holman in the paint, averaging 1.9 and 1.8 blocks per game, respectively. On the perimeter, 6-foot guard Lamar Peters leads the team with 1.5 steals per game. Quinndary Weatherspoon, who leads the team with 14.7 points per game, also is averaging 1.4 steals.
“We got to do a good job of moving them and taking care of the basketball,” Chambers said. “If we don’t take care of the basketball, it could be a long night for us.”
Mississippi State advanced to the semifinals with a 79-56 win over Louisville after wins over Baylor and Nebraska.
Chambers worked with his staff to make adjustments after Mike Watkins’ knee injury. The Nittany Lions coaches added wrinkles with dribble handoffs and ball screens on the offensive end, and they stressed a different approach on the defensive end. Chambers also asked Garner, Stevens, Tony Carr and Josh Reaves what they saw on the court as they made changes.
“We had almost seven days to figure out how we would do it without him,” Chambers said.
Watkins played limited minutes against Purdue and Michigan before missing the Nebraska game during that seven-day span. The Nittany Lions were ready for the Big Ten tournament, knowing they couldn’t take the same risks without Watkins protecting the rim. And they needed to pressure the ball more and provide help for freshman John Harrar in the post.
“All five guys on the floor really helping one another out,” Chambers said. “I think that was the thing that we tried to change, going back to the fundamentals and the basics of it.”
“I've watched them a lot and we played last Tuesday, so we've got a week between games. So I'd rather we played a little sooner because it just makes me sicker and sicker and I'm watching Carr, and I'm watching Stevens and I'm watching their sophomores. But Garner’s a very good senior who has like 27-foot range on his jumper. I think Reaves is really an underrated player for them.”
— Mississippi State coach Ben Howland