The game was just a few minutes old when one play portended the punishing, 72-45 whipping Penn State put on New Hampshire at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.
The Nittany Lions were packed neatly into a 2-3 zone with a 4-3 lead and about 15:40 left in the first half. As the Wildcats probed the perimeter it became increasingly clear that entry into the paint wouldn’t be allowed.
Hands clapped their approval on the Penn State bench almost as quickly as the Nittany Lions (7-4) on the floor barked out their defensive assignments. The possession would end in a New Hampshire turnover and lead to a Brandon Taylor 3-pointer.
“I thought today was the best job we’ve ever (communicated),” said head coach Patrick Chambers. “Our bench was awesome. I thought we talked early and often.
“When a team starts to communicate and they start to listen to each other — that builds trust,” Chambers continued. “I think what you saw today was a team building trust and I think that’s why our defensive rotations were as good as they were.”
Taylor’s three was part of an early 10-0 run that was followed quickly by a 12-0 run.
Jermaine Marshall scored a game-high 15 points and for the second game in a row bloated the box score with four rebounds, three assists and a career-high five steals.
“He’s playing with good pace; he’s not taking as many bad shots,” Chambers said of Marshall. “He’s playing as well as he’s ever played because he doesn’t feel the need to force (shots). And then he gets you five steals so he’s doing it on both ends.”
Three other Nittany Lions also scored double figures as the team continued its torrid shooting over its current three-game winning streak. Taylor and D.J. Newbill each tallied 10 points while Sasa Borovnjak continued his quality play with 11 points and four rebounds.
In fact, nine different players scored for Penn State, including Penns Valley product Kevin Montminy’s triple with just seconds remaining in the game that sent ticket holders home with free Big Macs for the third-straight contest, the result of a McDonald’s promotion for ticket-holders when the Nittany Lions score 70 points or more.
In stark contrast, no Wildcat could muster more than nine points. At times, it looked as if Penn State was playing a previous version of itself from earlier this season.
New Hampshire (4-7) shot less than 18 percent from the field in the first half and 22 percent in the game. The Wildcats managed just five first-half field goals and turned the ball over nine times in the first frame. They finished with 15 total turnovers, which led to 23 Penn State points.
Penn State held the Wildcats to 22.6 percent shooting from the field, the lowest percentage by an opponent in 15 years.
“The past couple of days we’ve been really working on our foundation, which is defense,” said senior guard Nick Colella, who also had three steals. “And I think we did a really great job of just helping each other out and if there was a missed assignment each guy just stepped up and that was a big part of the game.”
Donovon Jack illustrated Colella’s point perfectly early in the second half.
New Hampshire’s Chandler Rhoads penetrated the lane after he beat a hobbled Ross Travis off the dribble. It seemed Rhoads had a clear path until Jack ranged to his right and stapled Thoades’ floater to the backboard with 13:58 left in the game.
Travis, who sprained his left knee in practice, hit a jumper on Penn State’s ensuing offensive possession for a 52-26 advantage. The sophomore still managed four points and tied Newbill for the team lead with six rebounds in 21 minutes.
“I think we caught a big break,” Chambers said. “(Travis) wasn’t supposed to play. He hurt his knee on Thursday and he’s been out. So we were cautious with what we were going to do (with him).”
It’s no surprise though that Penn State would respond well to a teammate going down. The Nittany Lions beat Bucknell in the team’s first full game without Tim Frazier. Against New Hampshire, Penn State might have played its best and most consistent defensive game this season.
That is, of course, until Chambers gets ahold of the game tape.
“The score would indicate that, but I have to watch the film,” Chambers said with chuckle. “But the level of energy and effort I definitely think was there, for the most part. … Especially after exams and everybody leaving for Christmas, I felt like we were all dialed in for those 40 minutes.”