Penn State used its size advantage to frustrate its opponent in the season opener.
There was 7-foot-1 center Jordan Dickerson, standing in the paint with both of his hands straight up, as 6-foot-5 Virginia Military Institute forward Phillip Anglade searched for an opening to no avail. There was 6-foot-6 forward Payton Banks bothering VMI’s leading returning scorer, 6-foot guard QJ Peterson, taking away any open looks with his length. And there was 6-foot-4 guard Josh Reaves staying active as part of the strong defensive effort against the Keydets, whose tallest players stand 6-foot-6.
The Nittany Lions’ length helped put away VMI in a 62-50 win at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday.
“We’re really long and VMI’s really quick, really fast, but we’re long so they can’t get those uncontested shots off that they normally get because of our length,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Even if we’re off a little bit, we’re 6-5, we’re 6-6, we’re long.”
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VMI scored just four points in the first 10 minutes of the second half as Penn State pulled away for the victory. The Keydets shot 36.7 percent from the field for the game. Peterson, who averaged 19.6 points per game last year, finished 3 for 18 from the field and 2 for 10 from 3-point range en route to scoring eight points.
Shep Garner paced Penn State with 15 points and went 4 for 6 from deep. Brandon Taylor added 13 points and six rebounds, and Banks finished with 12 points and six rebounds in his first career start. Reaves had six points, five rebounds, three blocks and two steals in his college debut.
It was also the head coaching debut of former Penn State guard and assistant coach Dan Earl, who was hired by VMI in April. Earl, who was honored before the game, said he loves Penn State, but called it a business trip.
“It’s all fine and dandy, but I wanted our guys to compete,” Earl said. “I thought we could have played better today so it was a little disappointing on that side.”
VMI competed in the first half after Reaves got in the scoring column 14 seconds into his career, coming up with a steal and cruising downcourt for a two-handed dunk to give Penn State the lead.
The Keydets went ahead on a 3-pointer by Julian Eleby and maintained the lead until Banks found Donovon Jack for an alley oop to push Penn State ahead 19-18 with 8:51 left in the first half.
The Nittany Lions led the rest of the way, taking a 29-24 advantage into halftime and blowing the game open in the second half.
Penn State’s defense helped key the decisive run after the break.
Anglade had nowhere to go against Dickerson on VMI’s first possession. Peterson later lost his dribble, and Taylor dove on it for a steal. Even the Keydets’ first points of the half came off a Taylor block that fell into the hands of Anglade for an easy finish.
In the next 10 minutes, VMI went 1 for 8 from the field, turned it over twice and scored just three points.
When Peterson air balled a 3-pointer over Banks with the shot clock winding down, Penn State led 44-28.
“The length definitely bothered us,” Earl said.
The size advantage was also a factor in Penn State’s offensive game plan.
The Nittany Lions fed Taylor down low and looked to go inside throughout the game. Taylor finished 4 for 14 from the field and hit 5 of a team-high 8 free-throw attempts.
“I knew we had a mismatch from the beginning, so I figured I’d get my work inside,” Taylor said.
Chambers said he’d like to see his team get to the free-throw line more — Penn State went 11 for 18 from the line.
And Taylor said Penn State learned a valuable lesson in the final five minutes, when VMI cut an 18-point lead to 12 points.
The forward called the stretch — which included three straight turnovers and three VMI 3-pointers — the result of “lazy plays” after Penn State relaxed.
“I think that we need to learn how to finish games and just step on the other team’s throat and just put ‘em out completely and not even give ‘em a chance to bring it to 12,” Taylor said.
Chambers said it’s all part of the process for this group.
“We just got to keep taking steps,” Chambers said. “I’m disappointed with the turnovers, but they happened and we got to watch film tomorrow and get better from it.”
Notes: Penn State freshman Deividas “Davis” Zemgulis made his debut Saturday, going 0 for 2 from 3-point range in three minutes. … Penn State’s Isaiah Washington saw his first action in nearly a year, scoring four points and grabbing two rebounds in nine minutes. Washington played in one game last year (Nov. 16 against Fordham) and received a medical hardship waiver. … The Nittany Lions finished 5 for 19 from 3-point range Saturday. … Penn State hosts DePaul at 5 p.m. Tuesday.