The ball zipped around the perimeter to create a wide-open shot for Shep Garner.
Penn State made six passes and all five players touched the ball. Ross Travis was the lone player to put the ball on the floor, first to set up an entry pass and then to set up a bounce pass as the Southern California defense collapsed on him under the rim.
Geno Thorpe caught the ball and immediately sent it to a wide-open D.J. Newbill at the top of the key. Newbill was down and ready and caught the ball when USC’s Jordan McLaughlin was still at the free-throw line. He could have fired from deep, but chose to make the extra pass to Garner, with no defender left to rotate to contest his 3-point attempt.
Garner drilled the shot to complete the flawless possession.
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“That’s basketball and that’s the way it should be played,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “That was the most enjoyable possession of my career. Touch, touch, touch, good shot, better shot, great shot and it’s not going to be like that. Sometimes you got to win ugly.”
A month later, the Nittany Lions have continued to win ugly while they constantly work to improve their offensive execution. There have been flashes, like the possession against USC, where Penn State makes the extra pass and moves the ball well, but it’s far from where Chambers wants it to be. The coach came into this season focused on getting his team to share the ball more, to play the game the way it’s meant to be played.
It remains an area of focus as the Nittany Lions (11-1) close out their nonconference slate against Dartmouth (5-5) at 4 p.m. Monday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Chambers has built the program with a focus on the defensive end.
He and his players talk about defending and rebounding from week to week. But going into this year, the coach split his time on offense and defense with that mantra already instilled in his players.
Plus, he saw depth developing behind leading scorer D.J. Newbill, resulting in the potential to get more players involved offensively. By doing so, Penn State could make teams work on the defensive end like Big Ten powers Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin have during Chambers’ tenure.
So the Nittany Lions focused on sharing the ball and getting uncontested shots throughout the preseason.
“I think the unselfishness on offense comes from that, we just want to get the job done,” Newbill said. “I think we can get better just moving around, being more patient sometimes. I think we get sped up sometimes.”
Twelve games into the season, it remains a work in progress.
Newbill, who is among the nation’s top scorers with 21.8 points per game, is capable of creating his own shot against any defender. But Chambers said his team stands and watches Newbill and Brandon Taylor at times rather than reading the defense and cutting.
The Nittany Lions ranked last among Big Ten teams and tied for 317th in the nation in assists per game with 9.8 going into Sunday.
Chambers said his team’s ball movement can always be better.
“We always want more,” Chambers said. “Always room for growth in that area. Always room. We worked on it (Thursday) — just trying to get the ball popping a little bit, put a little pressure on the paint a little bit more and not standing and watching.”
Penn State made just one pass on its first six possessions against Drexel on Saturday, recording its first field goal on the sixth trip down the floor.
During the Nittany Lions’ 18-3 run to build an insurmountable 20-point lead in the second half, they scored on 10 of 11 possessions.
They did it by getting to the rim and never needed more than two passes to score.
Penn State’s depth showed as six different players scored during the stretch to seize control with just more than seven minutes to play. Though Penn State had just nine assists Saturday, five players scored at least seven points.
Newbill said his teammates’ work ethic has built confidence in sharing the ball.
“When you see a guy in the gym late nights working out or getting up extra shots, we can kind of trust those guys to make those shots in the game,” Newbill said. “So we’re willing to give them the ball. I think we’re all just unselfish, like we don’t care who scores.”
And that, Chambers said, makes the Nittany Lions harder to guard.
“If you’re harder to guard, that puts pressure on the defense,” Chambers said. “So we were just focusing on extra passes, doing little things, better prep work and reading the defense.”