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 State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

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Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”