Pat Chambers knew his team wasn’t quite right.
Early in the first half, Northwestern senior guard Pat Spencer made a back cut to the basket for an easy open layup. Chambers immediately called a timeout after the bucket gave the Wildcats an 11-9 lead over Penn State.
The Penn State head coach covered his mouth with his hands and screamed at his players, but they weren’t quite at their seats for the media timeout with 16:17 left to go in the first half. Instead, they were huddled around senior forward Lamar Stevens, only a few feet from Chambers and the rest of the coaching staff.
The huddle was relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of Penn State’s season, but it’s a perfect example of how this iteration of the Nittany Lions, which defeated Northwestern 77-61 on Saturday, is different from past versions. This version doesn’t crumble when it reaches adversity. Instead, it digs deep and bands together, working in unison toward a common goal behind a star player ready to lead it into battle.
Penn State was facing a Northwestern team that sits at the bottom of the Big Ten standings in a Saturday game that tipped off at noon, just three days ahead of an important home game against Illinois, a team that sits near Penn State in the conference standings. And it was doing so without sophomore guard Myreon Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer, who sat out with an illness.
It had all the makings of a letdown game, and it looked like one at the start. Northwestern looked like the more energized team early on. It looked like a team with an upset on its mind, and Penn State looked like a team that wasn’t ready for a fight. The Nittany Lions appeared to be a team that was ready to suffer a letdown, ready to hit a speed bump and bring its seven-game winning streak to a close.
Chambers said his team wasn’t playing to its identity when he called the timeout.
“It was really about us defensively,” Chambers said after the game. “I didn’t see tenacity. I didn’t see the stances. I didn’t hear the communication. ... I felt like we didn’t get any stops. ... It was a little timeout to remind them what our identity is.”
Stevens steps up: So Chambers called the timeout and Stevens knew why. So he stepped up, ready to lead his teammates.
“Lamar really took the huddle,” Chambers added. “Lamar got after them. He just said we’re not playing Penn State basketball, we’re not defending, we’re not rebounding, we’re not talking. I just reinforced one or two things, but it was really Lamar. He knew why I called the timeout and he grabbed them before I even got into the huddle. That’s a great sign of leadership and what these guys want to do.”
Stevens took the lead of the huddle, but it wouldn’t have been possible if his teammates didn’t believe in him and his leadership.
“They’re connected,” Chambers said about his players. “I think for Lamar to be able to teach at that moment and really motivate his teammates, that takes ego-less (teammates), that takes connection, that takes love, that takes trust. Some guys might want to bark back, but not this team.”
The timeout worked, pushing Penn State to a double-digit lead by the end of the half. The Nittany Lions outscored the Wildcats 33-17 in the final 16:17 of the half after the timeout, including seven points by Stevens, who carried his leadership back onto the court as the game’s leading scorer the rest of the way.
Stevens finished with 23 points and seven rebounds.
A simple message: The senior leader’s message to his teammates was a simple one, according to Chambers. They weren’t playing hard defensively and were coasting in the game, trying to outmatch the Wildcats’ on the offensive end while taking a beating on defense.
Northwestern head coach Chris Collins noticed a stark change in Penn State’s attitude after the timeout.
“I thought their aggressiveness picked up,” Collins said. “I thought the timeout probably just woke them up. Sometimes (when) you play at noon, sometimes the road team can have an advantage. ... That’s why Pat’s a heck of a coach. He called the timeout, they got rallied, and I thought their energy level and aggressiveness really kind of picked up on both ends.”
Penn State junior guard Jamari Wheeler, who was part of the huddle around Stevens, said the senior forward just wanted to get his teammates back to playing how they have been of late.
“He was just telling us to get back to what we know,” Wheeler said. “(That’s) defensive rebounding and getting stops. (He said) to stop just trying to (win with) offense. Just get stops and that’ll take care of the rest.”
A different PSU team: The senior forward didn’t have to take control of the team in that timeout. In years past, he may not have. On Penn State teams in the past, other leaders may not have stepped up.
But this isn’t the Penn State of old. This is a Penn State ready to make its mark and do damage late into March — and maybe even April.