Shep Garner remembers his first game at the Palestra like it was yesterday.
He breaks down the Philadelphia Catholic League postseason game in short, direct statements.
Ninth grade. Playoffs. Final four against Neumann-Goretti.
“We lost by one,” said Garner, a Penn State sophomore guard.
Garner and his Roman Catholic teammates played at the Palestra in the Catholic League playoffs every year of his high school career. He’ll return to the storied building to suit up in Philadelphia for the first time in his college career when the Nittany Lions (7-3) take on Drexel (1-7) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
In the years after his first game at the Palestra in a semifinals matchup with Neumann-Goretti, Garner became one of top players in the Catholic League and the state before signing with Penn State, where he’s started from day one. In his second year, he has expanded his game after an offseason of work. Garner is second on the team in scoring with 15.0 points per game and leads the team with 2.9 assists while playing a team-high 35.0 minutes per game.
The Chester native believes he can serve as an example for kids from his area.
You can go to Penn State, Garner said, and succeed.
“I think it’s definitely a recruiting tool,” Garner said. “And it’s great to come home and put on a show for your family and friends.”
Penn State has found success recruiting players from Philadelphia, landing Roman Catholic trio Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick in its Class of 2016, which is ranked among the best in the nation.
“We’re a viable option now for Philadelphia basketball players, which is great,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said at his press conference Thursday. “So I expect a great crowd and people know we’re coming down.”
Garner is looking forward to his homecoming.
He’ll be playing against an old teammate, Rashann London, who is Drexel’s second-leading scorer with 11 points per game. Garner and London led Roman Catholic to the Catholic League championship game at the Palestra as seniors, falling to Neumann-Goretti again. It was part of a run of six straight titles for Neumann-Goretti.
It ended last season when Carr and Bostick led Roman Catholic to a win over Neumann-Goretti in the title game.
On signing day in November, Roman Catholic coach Chris McNesby said his players will benefit from Garner’s leadership when they arrive at Penn State. The coach watched as Garner developed alongside star guard D.J. Newbill last year, describing Garner’s role as playing the “Robin role to a Batman.”
That experience was crucial for Garner.
And he worked with the coaching staff to get better during the offseason, dedicating “countless hours” to finishing at the rim and ballhandling.
Garner said he wanted to become an “elite finisher” this season.
“We worked on a whole bunch of different finishes, styles of finishing — floaters, left-hand elite finishes and it’s paying off,” Garner said. “I worked a lot on it. I’m still working on it, trying to get better every day at it.”
Chambers said Garner has a long way to go to becoming “the complete point guard.”
The Penn State coach wants to see Garner improve defensively and make his teammates better — leading to more assists. Garner has shown flashes as he finished drives and dished out a career-high eight assists in a loss to Radford. He’s also been Penn State’s best 3-point shooter, knocking down a team-high 25 triples at a 43.1 percent clip.
Chambers was impressed by Garner’s maturity in the win over Louisiana-Monroe last Saturday when the guard went scoreless for the first 31 minutes. Garner played well defensively and made big plays late for the Nittany Lions, a performance that Chambers said showed growth.
But Chambers is still searching for consistency from his sophomores, including Garner, before Big Ten play begins.
“I think Shep can play better and I think he will,” Chambers said.
Garner plans to put on a show in a building considered to be one of the game’s cathedrals again Saturday.
“There’s just so much history there — Big 5, probably one of the oldest gyms, so just the history,” Garner said. “A lot players that played in there came through the Big 5, all the Catholic League players that played there. It’s just great. A lot of history.”
Penn State (7-3) vs. Drexel (1-7)
Time: 7 p.m.
Arena: Palestra, Philadelphia
Radio: WQWK 1450