Devin Foster spoke with excitement heading into his first season at Penn State.
It was Oct. 14, a month before the team’s first game, and the Nittany Lion guard was ready to do whatever it took to get on the floor. But his role was limited to working hard at practice and staying positive on the bench for much of the first 18 games.
Foster broke into the rotation and played more minutes Wednesday against Michigan State than he did the rest of the year combined.
“He finally gets his chance and he seizes the moment,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said Friday. “And that’s what it’s about — keeping a clear head, when you get your opportunity make the most of it. And I believe he did that.”
Chambers expressed confidence in Foster throughout the season despite his lack of game experience. He knew he’d need to turn to Foster at some point, and an opportunity opened with guard John Johnson serving an indefinite suspension since Jan. 12. Foster provided a lift against the Spartans, scoring six points to go with five rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes.
The junior college transfer now gives Chambers another option at point guard along with freshman Shep Garner. Garner has started all 19 games, but he’s struggled during the Nittany Lions’ 0-6 start in the Big Ten.
Penn State (12-7) will look to snap its six-game conference losing streak against Rutgers (10-10, 2-5) at noon Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Nittany Lions lost 50-46 to the Scarlet Knights on Jan. 3, and they suffered an 84-77 overtime loss to Purdue and a 66-60 loss to Michigan State in the last week.
“I really like our level of competition, I really like our approach and that’s where we got to take another step,” Chambers said. “For us to play that well against Michigan State after such a difficult loss shows something about our character and our resolve and our perseverance, and today at practice, we got to take another step and get better and then tomorrow we got to take the next step.”
Chambers has seen Foster develop since he transferred from Vincennes (Ind.) University, where he earned NJCAA second-team All-American honors.
Foster needed to adapt to the speed and physicality of play when he arrived. He also needed to adjust to the intensity at practice.
“We play every practice like our game itself,” Foster said before the season. “I mean just competing in every drill, every practice. You can’t take no days off.”
Foster went 10 straight games during nonconference play without seeing any action as Garner got off to an impressive start. Garner scored in double figures in each of the first five games, shooting 50 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from beyond the arc.
But Garner has been mired in a slump in Big Ten action.
The guard is shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from 3-point range — down from 42.9 percent and 38 percent as he helped the Nittany Lions go 12-1 in nonconference play. Chambers said earlier this week he wants Garner to continue to fire from deep.
“He’s going to have tough stretches,” Chambers said. “He’s going through a tough stretch. I got great confidence in him and I have great belief in him.”
That belief and confidence is starting to extend to Foster.
After Penn State’s win over Dartmouth to finish the nonconference slate, Chambers said he’d be relying on Foster moving forward. After Johnson was suspended, Chambers said Foster’s role would grow.
Foster did not play in 14 of the team’s 19 games saw just 17 combined minutes before his breakthrough game against Michigan State.
“I just noticed in practice, he was getting closer and closer and I just feel like he’s now ready to play,” Chambers said. “He understands how hard you have to play every possession in the Big Ten.”
Foster and Garner played together for stretches Wednesday.
The lineup featuring two point guards allows both to play to their strengths.
“Shep can focus more on scoring,” Chambers said. “And Devin can run the offense and make sure guys are in the right position.”