In his seventh season as Penn State’s basketball coach, Patrick Chambers knew deep down the importance of gaining a signature win, and finishing off games, after enduring some excruciatingly tough losses earlier this season.
The Nittany Lions succeeded on both counts Thursday night with an 82-79 victory at No. 13 Ohio State on a 40-foot bank shot at the buzzer by former Roman Catholic High star Tony Carr.
It hasn’t been easy for Chambers, the former Philadelphia University star and Villanova assistant who continues to seek his first NCAA berth at Penn State. Athletic director Sandy Barbour has talked about the importance of making progress as a program, something she reiterated during an interview at the Fiesta Bowl.
“I don’t think anything has changed from the conversations that I’ve had with Patrick over the summer and that I’ve had with [the media] about where we need to see progress in the Big Ten,” she said, adding the team had “a great chance to make noise” in the conference.
The Lions (14-8, 4-5 Big Ten) had been 1-5 in games decided by one or two possessions or in overtime. But they got the job done against the Buckeyes with the help of 11-for-14 shooting from three-point range, a program-record 78.6 percent, and the return of junior starter Josh Reaves, who missed four games because of academic-related issues.
“We lost a couple of heartbreakers,” Chambers said after the game. “We’re competing. We just need to learn how to finish games, and I felt like we did that for the most part. There’s still a lot of basketball left. I feel like this team can get a lot better.”
Finding his stride
Miami freshman Lonnie Walker IV, the pride of Reading, is showing a national audience why Villanova and other programs were so eager to get him on their team.
The 6-foot-5 Walker scored a career-high 25 points in Wednesday’s 78-75 overtime win over Louisville, including a gravity-defying, contorting layup that tied the game in regulation. In his last four games, all starts, Walker has averaged 18.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.5 steals. His season average is 10.2 points.
“Once we started conference play, he elevated his game,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “His game is elevated because his confidence is up. He’s only scratching the surface. He can add a lot of dimensions to his game.”
Speaking of freshmen, give credit to Oklahoma’s Trae Young for finding new and different ways to help his team win.
One week ago, Young scored 48 points but took 39 shots, and missed potential game-winning three-pointers at the end of regulation and overtime in an 83-81 loss. On Tuesday, he took just nine shots, scored 26 points with nine assists and five turnovers, and led the Sooners to an 85-80 win over No. 5 Kansas.
So where does Young, still leading the nation with a 30.3-point average, go from here? Perhaps a happy medium between 39 and nine shots would help the Sooners, but there will still be times he’ll need to score more if his teammates aren’t hitting.
St. John’s has been waiting for good things to happen under coach Chris Mullin, the school’s all-time leading scorer and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but the losses keep piling up.
The Red Storm are 0-9 in the Big East going into Saturday’s game at Butler. Seven of the losses are by seven points or fewer, including a 78-71 defeat at the hands of Villanova on Jan. 13.
“I think you have to digest it, learn from it and then you have to come out with a positive attitude,” said Mullin, who is 32-54 overall and 8-37 in the Big East in his third season at St. John’s. “I think it’s just better focus throughout the game. … We’ve got to maintain a positive attitude, maintain our discipline and dedication, and I feel confident we’ll win some games.”
As Rhode Island continues its run through the Atlantic Ten, the Rams have attracted national respect, coming in at No. 24 in this week’s Associated Press poll, their first national ranking since November 2016. The Rams have won 16 straight conference games and nine in a row on the road. “It’s attention you can’t run from,” coach Danny Hurley told the Providence Journal. “They should be excited about it and want to keep it going.” Said all-conference guard E.C. Matthews: “On our things-to-do list, it wasn’t getting ranked. We’re blessed to be there, but we have bigger plans.”
Expatriate of the week
Robert Morris forward Koby Thomas, who starred at Imhotep Charter, leads all Northeast Conference freshmen with averages of 13.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-6 Thomas has two double-doubles, the latest a 20-point, 10-rebound performance Jan. 11 against St. Francis (Pa.). A four-time conference rookie of the week, Thomas was expected to make his 22nd straight start Friday night.
Games of the week
Virginia at Duke, Saturday at 2 p.m., CBS3: The Cavaliers allow a Division I-low 51.6 points per game and limit opponents to 36.4 percent shooting. The Blue Devils lead in scoring at 91.7 points and shoot it at a 51 percent clip. Will Virginia’s smothering defense travel well to Cameron Indoor?
Kentucky at West Virginia, Saturday at 7 p.m., ESPN: Close friends John Calipari and Bob Huggins were expected to dine together Friday night at Huggins’ fund-raising fish fry for cancer research before they battle on the court. The two teams combined have lost five of their last seven games.
Michigan State at Maryland, Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS3: The Spartans sport a lethal mix of outstanding shooting (52.4 percent on the season) and suffocating defense (35.3 percent shooting by opponents). The Terrapins could really use a major signature win to add to a shaky NCAA resume.
Kansas at Kansas State, Monday at 9 p.m., ESPN: The Jayhawks won Round 1 of the “Sunflower Showdown,” 73-72, on Jan. 13 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The Wildcats, who entered the weekend on a three-game winning streak, would like to settle the score at home.
Louisville at Virginia, Wednesday at 7 p.m., ESPN2: The Cardinals, ranked as high as 14th early in the season before dropping out of the rankings, were working their way back in when they suffered an overtime loss at Miami. The Cavaliers gave up 36 points, to Clemson, in their last home game.
Player to watch
Jevon Carter, West Virginia, G, 6-2, Sr., Maywood, Ill.
Carter is one of the nation’s outstanding defensive players. The Big 12 defensive player of the year last season, he currently in second in NCAA Division I in steals at 3.4 per game. At the offensive end, he’s averaging 16.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists for the seventh-ranked Mountaineers. He also is shooting 85.3 percent on free throws and carries a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.