Penn State basketball started its season how a good team should when it faces a clearly inferior opponent, dominating the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Hawks at the Bryce Jordan Center, 84-46. The Hawks entered the game as the No. 349 team in Division 1 basketball according to Ken Pomeroy’s preseason KenPom rankings, while the Nittany Lions were No. 43 in the same rankings.
Penn State was led in the game by senior forward Lamar Stevens. He finished the game with 17 points and 6 rebounds in only 20 minutes of action, including 2-of-5 shooting from 3-point range.
Penn State head coach Pat Chambers said five attempts from beyond the arch could be the norm for Stevens this year.
“(You can expect that many 3-pointers) if they’re open,” Chambers said after the win. “If they’re good shots, if his feet are right and everything is in rhythm, yes (you can expect that). I thought he had good looks. I didn’t think he took a bad one. I didn’t think he rushed (them). They were all in rhythm shots, so they’re good shots for us.”
The Nittany Lions went into cruise control early in their season opener. Senior center Mike Watkins opened the game with a bucket after easily backing down UMES senior forward A.J. Cheeseman and the home team never relinquished its lead from there.
Penn State put nine points on the board before the Hawks responded, and by then it was far too late. The Nittany Lion defense made life difficult for UMES and was able to keep the game out of reach, even when the team’s offense struggled.
The team finished the half with eight offensive boards and 11 second-chance points. Penn State’s positioning and hustle on the glass made up for its poor 3-point shooting to start the game. The Nittany Lions made 4-of-16 attempts from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, but Penn State still held a 37-17 lead going into the half.
The second half featured more of the same from the Nittany Lions defensively and on the boards. Watkins once again opened the scoring with a post-up and bucket over Cheeseman at the rim on Penn State’s first possession, showcasing the Nittany Lions’ massive size advantage over the Hawks.
Sophomore guard Myles Dread led the Nittany Lions from beyond the arc, especially in the second half. He made 5-of-6 3-point attempts, including 4-of-4 in the final 20 minutes to help the team get back on track with 8-of-15 shooting from deep in the half for a total of 12-of-31 from 3-point range.
The sophomore starter was happy with his shooting on opening night.
“It was the work I put in this summer,” Dread said. “I was a good 3-point shooter last year, but I didn’t want to stay at that same place. I wanted to get better. That’s what I really focused on and it felt good to show off the work I put in (during) the summer. It paid off.”
Dread’s 6 attempts in 16 minutes put him on pace for 15 in 40 minutes. While that benchmark is unsustainable, he knows when he wants to shoot in games.
“(I want to) shoot when I’m open, shoot when my teammates tell me to shoot, and just try to stay aggressive at all times,” he said.
Dread is an important cog and Stevens is the engine that makes the offense run in the half court, but when the team’s defense is playing at a high level, that’s when the Penn State offense excels. . The Nittany Lions finished with 22 fast break points and 15 points off turnovers.
Chambers said turning defense into offense will be important to his team’s success.
“We need easy baskets,” he said. “I think every coach would say that. They give you more confidence, they give you more energy, and then you know what happens when you get easy baskets? Threes start to fall in as well. It’s a domino effect.”
Watkins is the centerpiece of Chambers’ defense and he showed what he’s capable of as a rim protector in the season opener. The senior center finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 blocks in only 20 minutes, including his 200th career block in the first half.
Chambers said Watkins is on the right course.
“He’s in a good space right now,” Chambers said. “His energy level, his second jump, it’s just refreshing to see. He’s happy to be on the floor and happy to be with his teammates. He wants to do something special.”
Penn State has more depth and experience than it ever has under Chambers, but the trio of Dread, Stevens and Watkins will dictate just how far this team can go. Tuesday night was a good start, even if it came against a clearly inferior opponent.