Penn State enjoys 'magical experience,' tops Michigan State at Palestra

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Penn State enjoys 'magical experience,' tops Michigan State at Palestra

For the last 90 years, an endless number of great coaches have passed through the hallowed hallways of the Palestra and stepped foot on the famous gym floor.

But few likely ever did what legendary Michigan State coach Tom Izzo did Saturday — apologize to the building itself.

“My apologies to this magnificent facility,” Izzo said after the Spartans were knocked off by Penn State, 72-63, in the first Big Ten regular-season game ever played at the Palestra. “I loved the experience. I appreciated the hall. I appreciated everything about it — except I feel like we cheated those of you who have seen great teams and great coaches and great players play here. You got robbed today by the team in green.”

The unique game, played in front of a sold-out crowd and shown on ESPN, was set up because Penn State coach Patrick Chambers wanted a home game in Philly since six of his players hail from the area. And Izzo wanted the chance to coach in the historic gym for the first time in his legendary career.

Both got their wish but only Chambers walked away with the win as the Nittany Lions (10-7, 2-2) snapped Michigan State’s four-game winning streak and beat the Spartans (11-6, 3-1) for the first time since 2011.

“A magical experience for sure,” Chambers said. “Not just for me and our team but for all Penn Staters. Man, was that fun to have a packed house like that. The home-court advantage was amazing, and to have it here at the Palestra, these guys will never forget this experience as long as they live.”

To help them prepare for the game, Chambers said he took his players on a tour of the Palestra on Friday, pointing out the plaques and photos of past teams and players that decorate the walls. He even had them run the Rocky steps earlier on Saturday.

But many of his players didn’t need to be reminded about Philadelphia and what playing basketball in the city means. Three of them — Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick — captured the Philly Catholic League Title last year at the Palestra with Roman Catholic. Another player, Shep Garner, also played his high school ball at Roman, and two others — Mike Watkins and Julian Moore — are from the area.

And not surprisingly, it was the Philly kids who led the way in the potentially program-altering win. Stevens scored a game-high 18 points, Carr had 14, Watkins added 11 off the bench and Garner scored eight to surpass the 1,000-point milestone for his career.

Payton Banks, whose sister played her home games at the Palestra for Penn, also had 11 after scoring 20 in the Nittany Lions’ last game at the Palestra — a 63-57 win over Drexel a little over a year ago.

“I felt at home,” Stevens said. “It felt like a home locker room.”

Stevens had a good laugh about the locker room when he heard Izzo comment about the Palestra’s old-school lack of luxuries.

But Izzo, who’s famous for his dislike of social media, absolutely loved it. In fact, that was one of the reasons he wanted to coach his first game at the Palestra, saying earlier that it was something he wanted to cross off his bucket list.

“To walk in the locker room and not see any jacks for Wi-Fi and phones and Twitter, God it was great, you know?” the Michigan State coach said. “I told our guys we’d probably have to hang our coats on hooks. We didn’t even have hooks in there! It was awesome. It was just awesome. I threw my damn coat on the floor and said, ‘This is where it belongs. This is some humility.’ And we need some humility right now on our team.’”

Penn state coach Patrick Chambers — who grew up going to games at the Palestra and whose brothers, Tim and Paul, played football and basketball at Penn, respectively — had another great reaction to coaching inside the 90-year-old gym, which tends to get as hot as it does loud.

“The lighting. The smell. It’s a gym. It’s a gym,” Chambers said. “I was drenched. I had to get changed. I was drenched underneath my coat. And you just love it. You love every second, every sweat, every drop.”

More than anything, Chambers loved getting the win, saying a victory over a perennial powerhouse like Michigan State in a place like the Palestra could be the kind of signature result to help elevate a program that’s only made two NCAA Tournaments in the last 20 years.

And Izzo, in the end, turned his apology into a thank you, even if he admitted to being “stupid” for taking his team into a “hornet’s nest” so he could “get my brains beaten in.” 

“Thanks for giving me the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “I truly mean this.”

Chambers also had a lot of reasons to be thankful after watching his team shoot 60 percent in the first half, paced by a couple of big threes from Banks, and come through with a few clutch steals down the stretch to fend off the Spartans in front of a packed crowd filled with fans who braved the snow to be there.

“There’s something really magical about this place,” the Penn State coach said. “It’s very near and dear to my heart. I will never forget this day for a long time.”

Penn beats Yale for 4th straight win, moves into Ivy League Tournament picture

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Penn beats Yale for 4th straight win, moves into Ivy League Tournament picture

BOX SCORE

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Darnell Foreman scored 15 points with four assists, Matt Howard added 14 points, including three 3-pointers, and Penn used a big second-half run to beat Yale 71-55 on Sunday for its fourth straight win.

AJ Brodeur had 12 points with nine rebounds, Ryan Betley also scored 12, and Devon Goodman had 11 for the Quakers (11-12, 4-6 Ivy League), who won their fourth straight game and moved into a fourth-place tie with Columbia in the conference standings. The top four teams will play in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, March 11-12, at The Palestra.

Goodman's layup off a steal capped a 17-3 run as Penn extended a 31-30 halftime lead to 48-33 at 14:39 in the second half. Howard hit two 3s in the run and Foreman added a third. Goodman hit a 3, Foreman followed with a layup and the Quakers led by 20, 62-42, with 6:17 left and held on.

Penn shot 50.9 percent from the field to Yale's 32.8 percent and made 9 of 23 from behind the arc to the Bulldogs' 6 of 28.

Miye Oni scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds for Yale (14-9, 6-4), which entered the game in third place behind Harvard and Princeton.

Josh Hart: 'Ceiling is a lot higher' for this year's Villanova team

Josh Hart: 'Ceiling is a lot higher' for this year's Villanova team

NEWARK, N.J. -- For this group of Villanova players, it’s always about the game at hand.

It’s not about looking forward, and it’s almost never about looking back.

But try to put yourself in their shoes and you’ll see how hard it can be to not look back.

That’ll happen when you’re the defending national champion who won the title with one of the greatest shots in the history of basketball and you’re currently the No. 2 team in the country and the favorite of many pundits to pull off a title repeat for the first time in 10 years since Florida did it in 2006-07.

Again, as they have been so times before, the Wildcats were asked about last year Saturday afternoon. But after thrashing Seton Hall to clinch a share of a record fourth straight Big East regular-season title (see game story), the tone was a little different this time around.

When Josh Hart, standing outside a visiting locker room in a dimly lit hallway in the bowels of Newark’s Prudential Center, was asked to compare the Wildcats at this point this season to the Wildcats at this point last season, he paused for a moment and looked up before giving his answer.

“I think the ceiling is a lot higher, so I think we have more room to grow,” said Hart, Villanova’s National Player of the Year candidate who poured in 19 points in the victory over Seton Hall.

Think about that for a second. The defending national champs who have been steamrolling through the competition this season have “more room to grow.”

It’s a scary thought for the rest of the competition in the nation.

“With Donte (DiVincenzo) and Eric (Paschall) really playing for their first years, Mikal (Bridges) is still young, Dylan (Painter) is getting minutes now in his first year,” Hart explained.

“We’re young and we can get a lot better. It’s tough to say and compare this year to last year. But the thing is that this team could have a better ceiling.”

Hart is not one to say something just for the sake of saying it. And there’s a lot of truth in what he said after Saturday’s win.

The ‘Cats are young. Jalen Brunson (a starter), Mikal Bridges (another starter) and Paschall are sophomores who play significant minutes. DiVincenzo is a redshirt freshman. Painter is a freshman who has started seeing more action with the rib injury to senior big man Darryl Reynolds.

Paschall, DiVincenzo and now Painter are helping solve depth issues that have been perhaps this Villanova team’s only question mark. Head coach Jay Wright has only gone six or seven players deep at times, thanks in large part to the knee injury to junior guard Phil Booth, who’s only suited up for three games this year. And that short rotation was before Reynolds was injured on Feb. 7 against Georgetown and missed the last three games.

Of those five, only Brunson and Bridges played during last season’s run to the title. At this point, you know what you’re going to get from them. You’re going to get 14.6 points and 4.5 assists a night from Brunson and you’re going to get 10.8 points and 4.6 boards a night from Bridges.

But DiVincenzo is now averaging 7.9 points a game and, of course, had that dramatic tip-in at the buzzer to beat Virginia in January. Paschall is up to 6.6 points a game in an average of 20.6 minutes of action and has been starting with Reynolds on the shelf. And Painter, a talented 6-foot-10 forward out of Hershey, is just starting to get his feet wet.

So these games and minutes are imperative for the younger depth players to find their niche.

Because those are the kinds of players that help you win in March.

If anyone knows that, it’s the head coach of the reigning champs.

“We’re in a good spot, but we’ve got to keep getting better,” Wright said. “Being able to win these games without Darryl is good because it’s just getting everyone else more playing time. We get Darryl rested and we’ll have a fresh body back. It’s getting Dylan Painter more minutes and he’s getting more comfortable and our guys are getting more comfortable with him.

“So I think we’re good and I think our guys are understanding the areas we need to improve.”

Much in line with what Wright and Hart said, the youthful Brunson took a similar path when asked to compare this year to last year at this point in time.

“I just know that we are getting better and we are making strides,” the point guard said after starring with 22 points and 10 assists for his first double-double in the win over Seton Hall.

“I think we’re close. But at the same time, there’s always room for improvement. The seniors are taking leadership and I’m taking leadership, as well, just to get us better.”

So this Villanova team thinks it can get better?

If it’s possible, look out.