Penn State Basketball

Penn State looks to continue to get better in Big Ten tournament

Penn State forward Brandon Taylor jumps for a shot over Illinois center Maverick Morgan (22) during the Nittany Lions’ 86-79 double-overtime win on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Penn State forward Brandon Taylor jumps for a shot over Illinois center Maverick Morgan (22) during the Nittany Lions’ 86-79 double-overtime win on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The numbers reveal how much Penn State improved at the end of the basketball regular season.

The Nittany Lions won five of their final eight games, a stretch in which they started to connect from beyond the arc, shared the ball more and played better on the defensive end.

Penn State coach Patrick Chambers noted the team’s statistics in those eight games — which even include a pair of blowout losses to Nebraska and Michigan State — are better than they were all season.

“To me that means we’re getting better,” Chambers said at the team’s media availability Tuesday, “and that excites me.”

After a strong finish to the regular season, the No. 10 seed Nittany Lions (16-15, 7-11) will take on No. 7 seed Ohio State (19-12, 11-7) in the second round of the Big Ten tournament at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Penn State finished with a season-low point total in a 66-46 loss to Ohio State in late January.

Josh Reaves missed that game due to mononucleosis, and Shep Garner injured his ankle early in the game against the Buckeyes. Chambers said Tuesday that his team is healthy going into the conference tournament. Buckeyes forward Jae’Sean Tate, who averaged 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds in 28 games, underwent season-ending left shoulder surgery in late February.

Tate went 6 for 6 from the field and scored 15 points in the first matchup against the Nittany Lions.

“We’re two different teams than we were when we first met,” Chambers said.

The Nittany Lions went 4 for 25 from beyond the arc in the loss at Ohio State. They started 0 for 13 from 3-point range and finished 2 for 16 from deep in the first half.

It was part of season-long struggle from 3-point range to that point. A little over a week later, Penn State finished 1 for 20 from beyond the arc in a loss to Iowa.

The Nittany Lions then drilled eight 3s in an upset win over eventual Big Ten champion Indiana, marking the start of their turnaround. Before the Indiana game, Penn State ranked 337th out of 346 Division I teams in the country in 3-point field goal percentage at 28.8 percent. The Nittany Lions were making an average of 5.7 3-pointers per game.

In the last eight games, Penn State was hitting nine 3s per game at a 37.5 percent clip. The team was also averaging 11.5 assists per game during that stretch after averaging 9.6 in its first 23 games.

The improved 3-point shooting played a factor in the Nittany Lions’ win over Illinois in the regular season finale. Garner drilled four of the team’s 10 3s, Isaiah Washington hit two second-half 3s and Payton Banks’ trey in the second overtime gave the Nittany Lions the lead for good.

Now, heading into the conference tournament, Chambers wants his team to continue to improve.

“We have limitless potential,” Chambers said of his message to the team going into the tournament. “Don’t put a limit on anything that we can do and once you do that, then you really have stopped getting better, so continue to reach for the stars.”

‘It’s an honor’

Brandon Taylor transformed his game and became Penn State’s unquestioned leader this season.

He was also one of the top players in the Big Ten, finishing eighth in the league in scoring at 16.3 points per game and tied for 10th with 6.5 rebounds per game. Taylor was a third-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and earned honorable mention honors from the coaches Monday night.

“It’s an honor to be looked at like that from the opposing teams,” Taylor said Tuesday. “It’s something that I’ve worked for and it’s something that I wouldn’t have been able to do without my teammates and my coaches.”

Garner said Taylor deserved the honor.

“Four years, he’s put blood, sweat and tears into this program and did a great job at helping turn this thing around,” Garner said.

Chambers praises Garner

Taylor was the lone Penn State player to receive all-conference recognition, but Chambers had high praise for his sophomore guard.

“Nobody’s saying this, but Shep’s in every category either top 15 or top 20,” Chambers said. “That’s impressive after the start that he had. He’s in every statistical category in the Big Ten and he’s up there. We got ourselves a big-time guard for our future.”

Garner finished sixth in the conference for the season in minutes played (35.1), tied for seventh in steals (1.3 per game), ninth in 3-point field goals made (2.3 per game), 13th in assists (3.4 per game), 14th in free-throw percentage (77.6) and 15th in scoring (14.5 points per game).

He finished in the top-16 in each of those categories in league games, and he also tied for 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7).

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery