Josh Reaves stood near halfcourt clapping, ready to play defense after hitting the biggest shot of the game.
The Penn State guard had just buried a 3-pointer from the left corner to push his team ahead by five with less than two minutes to play. It was his first 3-pointer of the season and just the fourth of his 29-game Nittany Lions’ career, but Reaves didn’t get caught up in the moment.
On Georgia Tech’s ensuing possession, Reaves was in position to affect the game on the defensive end like he has so often during his career. When Yellow Jackets guard Tadric Jackson turned his back with Terrence Samuel guarding him, Reaves pounced to strip the ball away.
Lamar Stevens grabbed the loose ball and got it back to Reaves for a breakaway layup as the Nittany Lions started to pull away en route to a 67-60 victory Tuesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
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“It’s great to have him back,” Penn State guard Shep Garner said of Reaves.
Reaves has helped the Nittany Lions (5-3) to three straight wins in less than a week after missing the team’s first five games due to a leg injury. The sophomore guard finished with nine points, five rebounds and a game-high four steals Tuesday night.
He was in the middle of Penn State’s solid defensive effort, helping limit Georgia Tech’s Quinton Stephens and Josh Okogie to 13 points each and contributing to the Nittany Lions scoring 24 points off turnovers.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers and Nittany Lion players mention Reaves’ energy and intensity defensively first whenever they talk about his effect on the team.
But clinging to a 57-55 lead with less than two minutes to play, Reaves changed the game with a 3-pointer.
He went into Tuesday night 3 for 41 from beyond the arc in his career. He missed back-to-back 3-point attempts from the right corner during a 24-second span early in the first half before catching the ball open in the left corner late in regulation.
Reaves drilled the shot to give the Nittany Lions a 60-55 lead with 1:40 to play.
“He picked a perfect spot to hit his first 3,” said Garner, who led Penn State with 17 points. “We congratulated him in the locker room, but that’s a huge shot.”
Garner, who had the assist on the play, expressed his confidence in Reaves to knock it down.
Chambers echoed that sentiment.
The coach noted Reaves didn’t hesitate and it looked good off his hand.
“It’s tremendous for that kid,” Chambers said. “... He’s got to be one of the hardest workers on our team.”
His effort on the defensive end with the steal and breakaway layup ended Georgia Tech’s hopes at climbing back into the game for the final minute.
Those plays hurt the Yellow Jackets all night.
Georgia Tech finished with 17 turnovers, giving Penn State plenty of opportunities to convert.
“The bottom line when you look at it, the thing that killed us was the points off of turnovers,” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said.
Reaves glided in for a breakaway dunk off one of those turnovers early in the second half.
He read Justin Moore as the Georgia Tech guard looked to pass the ball to Stephens, stole it and finished a dunk.
On his way back down the floor, he waved his arms three times, keeping the crowd involved with Penn State ahead by four.
He brought the same “juice” in Penn State’s win over George Washington on Saturday.
Chambers said Reaves led the Nittany Lions to victory in that game with his second-half play despite finishing with just two points.
The guard was all over the place, Chambers said.
On Tuesday night, he helped close out another win — with his defense and his first 3-pointer of the season.
Said Garner: “I’m proud of him.”
Notes: Mike Watkins recorded the first double-double of his career, finishing with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He also had five blocks. ... Lamar Stevens had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Nittany Lions. ... Chambers said Davis Zemgulis did not play due to a sprained ankle. ... Penn State hosts Wright State at 5 p.m. Saturday.