Penn State Basketball

Penn State men’s basketball: Thorpe kicking up defense for Nittany Lions

Penn State’s Geno Thorpe kicking up defense for Nittany Lions.
Penn State’s Geno Thorpe kicking up defense for Nittany Lions. CDT file photo

As the points started to pile up, Paul Holzshu decided to sit back and enjoy the Geno Thorpe show.

Thorpe couldn’t be stopped from attacking the rim and threw down his share of impressive dunks during his high school career at Shaler. He was a capable 3-point shooter, but it wasn’t one of his strengths.

So after Thorpe hit his fifth 3-pointer at McKeesport, Holzshu turned to his bench and said, “I’m not going to say a thing to screw this up.” By the end of the game, the coach wasn’t alone in recognizing the significance of his 45-point outburst.

“I’ll tell you how good he was,” Holzshu said. “The student body at McKeesport started cheering for him. McKeesport’s a traditional, high-profile basketball school in western Pennsylvania. They actually started cheering for him. They sensed the same thing that we did.”

Holzshu calls it as dominating a performance as he’s seen by a high school player in 40-some years of coaching. Thorpe gravitated to the offensive end like most high school kids and relied on his athleticism to do enough defensively.

That changed when he arrived at Penn State. The sophomore guard is now the Nittany Lions’ best defender.

He’s started the last six games for Penn State (15-9, 3-8) heading into its Big Ten matchup at No. 23 Ohio State (18-6, 7-4) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“I just go hard every possession,” Thorpe said. “I try to go hard as much as possible. I developed that when I first got here, my first practice here actually, so it just developed into my game. It’s just something that’s a part of my game.”

Thorpe brings intensity on the defensive end each game.

It was on display against Nebraska when he stuck with Cornhusker star Terran Petteway. And when he deflected an inbound pass and chased the loose ball before he made a diving attempt to save it in front of the Penn State bench.

It’s just part of his game now.

“It was never there in high school,” Thorpe said with a grin.

Holzshu talked to him constantly about excelling on the defensive end rather than falling back on his athleticism. The message didn’t click until Thorpe started facing top competition every day at Penn State.

“I can laugh about it now,” Holzshu said.

“The focus on Geno was always to try to get him to understand that really good players always make everyone around them play better,” Holzshu added. “It’s not just about what they do but more about the impact that they have on the other four players and how they play around that kind of talent.”

Holzshu saw Thorpe display those qualities at times.

When the senior guard poured in 45 points at McKeesport, the coach said he could have dropped 65. But he kept his teammates involved and Holzshu remembers three other players scoring in double figures that night.

Thorpe averaged 26.3 points per game his senior year and earned PIAA Class AAAA first-team honors in 2012 and 2013.

He made his mark on the defensive end as a freshman at Penn State, and he’s become a key part of coach Patrick Chambers’ rotation this season.

Chambers said the Nittany Lions are a better team with Thorpe on the floor. Thorpe is fourth on the team in scoring with 8.3 points per game and in minutes with 22.6 per game. He’s also shooting a team-best 86.4 percent from the foul line.

Chambers turns to Thorpe to stop the opposing team’s best player.

With Penn State protecting a three-point lead with 41 seconds left against Minnesota, Thorpe matched up with the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer Andre Hollins. Thorpe was right with Hollins as he tried to make his move and turned the ball over.

“That type of feistiness is exactly what we need in this league,” Chambers said two days after Penn State’s win over Minnesota.

Thorpe always had the athleticism to create havoc as a defender.

And he’s embraced his role for the Nittany Lions.

“I think I was the same player,” Thorpe said. “I take defense more seriously now just because I’m at a whole different level, a collegiate level and at this level you have to play defense.”

Notes: Penn State swept Ohio State last season, beating the Buckeyes 71-70 in overtime in Columbus and 65-63 at the Bryce Jordan Center. ... Ohio State leads the all-time series 32-15. ... Ohio State’s Marc Loving has missed two games due to suspension. OSU coach Thad Matta said in his press conference Tuesday that Loving will not play against Penn State. Loving is second on the team in scoring with 11.7 points per game. ... The Buckeyes have won four of their last five games.