Penn State’s Shep Garner took a seat in front of the microphone next to D.J. Newbill.
It wasn’t long before Garner was smiling while he described his first college game a dream come true. The freshman from Chester, Pa., started in the backcourt alongside the veteran Newbill and turned in an impressive performance as the Nittany Lions beat Morgan State 61-48 in the season opener Friday night at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Garner finished with 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting in 29 minutes, while Newbill scored a game-high 17 points. With Newbill to his right, Garner said he’s tried to learn from Penn State’s star guard since arriving on campus.
“I probably get annoying sometimes,” Garner said as Newbill nodded. “But I pick his brain all day long. He played point guard here for a whole year so I ask him every type of question I can just to get as much information as possible.”
The backcourt duo helped Penn State overcome a slow start and shaky shooting effort in the win. The Nittany Lions managed just four points in the first seven-plus minutes and trailed with less than seven minutes to play in the first half. But Penn State took the lead late in the half, led the entire second half and held Morgan State to 31 percent shooting.
“We didn’t make a ton of shots, but we played hard,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Our defense was very good, so there’s a lot to build on. There’s a lot of positives.”
Garner emerged as one of those positives with a productive debut.
Chambers said he knew Garner was going to start about two weeks ago and told him and the rest of the starters they’d earned their spots in individual meetings Monday.
Chambers said Garner earned the right to start by excelling at both ends during the preseason.
Garner missed his first two shots, both from beyond the arc. He picked up his first assist after slicing through the defense and leaving a pass for center Jordan Dickerson that cut Morgan State’s lead to 14-8. More than two minutes later, he finished a drive to the basket off the glass for the first two points of his career, bringing Penn State within 16-11.
Newbill, meanwhile, took just two shots before he followed Garner’s drive with a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Newbill drove and finished on the ensuing possession to tie the game.
“I don’t think we need to just rely on me to just score the ball,” Newbill said, explaining his slow start. “You see we got contributions from one through 10 (that) played. That’s just how it was. They pressed, we got the ball up the floor, got some good shots early. It just wasn’t falling, but we got some great shots. It wasn’t about them slowing me down.”
Geno Thorpe, who finished with 11 points, went down the middle of the lane and finished through a foul. He hit the free throw to give the Nittany Lions a 19-18 lead with 6:21 left in the half — their first advantage in nearly 10 minutes.
Chambers said Thorpe provided a spark off the bench.
Garner soon settled in and displayed his playmaking ability.
The guard drove down the left side of the lane, with Morgan State’s Jamar Redmond pressuring him, and flipped a right-handed shot into the basket. Penn State took a 25-23 lead it would never relinquish. The Nittany Lions led by double digits for the final 13:50.
“I thought he played great,” Newbill said of Garner. “He played with confidence. He played great. There isn’t much more to say about that.”
Garner knocked down a 3-pointer to open the second half. Two possessions later, Newbill quickly swung the ball to Garner in the left corner. With Morgan State’s Blake Bozeman charging at him, he gave a fake and pulled up to swish a short jumper.
His final field goal, a 3-pointer, pushed Penn State ahead 46-32 with 10:55 remaining.
Chambers pointed out this is only the beginning for Garner.
“He is fearless,” Chambers said. “I’m proud of the way he competed. We obviously needed his production tonight. The ball was not dropping for us.
“In general, I was proud of my team for the way they handled it. But to be a freshman and come out and play the way he did, the future’s bright for him. He’s going to be here for another four years.”