Donovon Jack’s birthday was Monday, but he gave his Penn State basketball teammates a present a day later.
Jack obliterated his career high by scoring 18 points as all five Nittany Lion starters scored in double figures in a 79-72 triumph over La Salle before 4,240 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Tim Frazier, Brandon Taylor and D.J. Newbill added 15 points each as Penn State (3-1) avenged an 82-57 drubbing from the Explorers (2-2) last year at The Palestra.
Jack, who previous career high was eight points, had that beat by halftime. The sophomore center opened the game by nailing a 3-pointer and went 4 for 6 from beyond the arc.
His presence help stretch the La Salle defense, allowing more driving room for Frazier and Newbill.
“He had a tremendous game,” Frazier said. “... He was shooting lights out today. That gives us a lot of options. Not a lot of (centers) across the country can step out and make threes and also post up down low. He’s a great option we can have. When he’s knocking down threes, I feel like we’re a great team and a hard team to beat.”
La Salle coach John Giannini agreed.
“Anytime you add another three-point shooter to your team it dramatically changes it, especially when it’s a big guy,” said Giannini, whose club advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament last season. “He’ll be open all year long. Big guys really struggle to cover the arc. I don’t know if he’ll shoot 4 of 6 every night, but clearly he’s a good shooter.
“Their three-point shooting was a huge part of the game. The fact that their big guys can shoot really forced us to play smaller late in the game and they hurt us on the glass. They’re a hard team to match up to.”
Jack’s play was a bright spot for a team that bounced back from a 90-80 loss to Bucknell, to knock off a pair of “Big Five” schools from Philadelphia. The Nittany Lions whipped Penn 83-71 on Saturday.
“Nobody is happier for Donovon like his teammates are and our staff,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “He really sacrificed the summer. He was here both summer sessions and really worked on his body and developing his skill set. That’s what he’s got to do. He’s a very good shooter and passer.”
Jack’s shooting and passing helped start the key stretch of a contest that featured 11 lead changes and six ties.
Trailing 56-52 with 13 minutes remaining, the Nittany Lions went on a 17-4 spurt to take control. Early in the run, Jack found Taylor on a give-and-go for a layup that tied the score at 56. He then followed up a Frazier miss with a putback to give Penn State the lead for good and his 3-pointer made it 61-56 with about 91/2 minutes remaining.
“Coach always says to play with great confidence,” said Jack, who averaged 1.7 points in 17 games as a freshman. “I owe it all to my teammates. They’re the one that got the open looks. My job was to shoot ball and make it down. The best thing is to always be ready. ... I was just feeding off of the game, playing off instincts and playing off my teammates.”
La Salle got within 61-60, but Newbill’s 3-point play after an offensive rebound triggered an 8-0 run. Taylor also nailed a 3-pointer in the outburst and La Salle never got closer than seven points down the stretch.
“I think it was everything,” Giannini said when asked what went wrong in the 17-4 outburst. “We struggled to score. We struggled to stop them. I don’t think it was really any one thing. I thing they really outplayed us in that stretch.”
Frazier’s great over-the-shoulder catch on a pass from Newbill and ferocious dunk with 3:24 punctuated the big second half for the Nittany Lions, who trailed 42-40 at halftime. Penn State shot 49 percent (16 for 33) in the half, while La Salle dropped to 40 percent (12 of 30) thanks to poor shooting against the Nittany Lions’ zone.
“We just kept battling,” Frazier said. “Our staple was attitude.”
Frazier had 11 assists and just one turnover. Taylor and Ross Travis (13 points) led the Nittany Lions with eight rebounds. Taylor also reject four shots.
Chambers said it’s important for Frazier, an all Big Ten performer who missed almost all of last season with an injury, and Newbill, the team’s leading returning scorer, to see their teammate succeed.
“Most importantly, I think Tim and D.J. realize that they need these other guys,” Chambers said. “They’re gaining a lot of trust in these other guys to step up to make plays. It’s not just about shots. There was some big-time rebounds down the stretch and steals. Those winning plays are what we stress and talk about all of the time. I think Tim and D.J. are really enjoying playing with these guys.”
Tyrone Garland led the Explorers with 18 points, but was 6 of 18 from the floor. Tyreek Duren added 16. Steve Zack, who had 10 points in the first half, was held to just two after the break. Zack and Jerrell Wright had 10 rebound apiece.
“I don’t think there was anything mysterious about the second half,” Giannini said. “They defended better, shot better and passed the ball better.”
Penn State returns to action Sunday at the Jordan Center with a 1 p.m. clash against Longwood.