Coach Patrick Chambers walked briskly onto the court during a timeout, similar to the way he typically might do before emphatically reprimanding one of his players.
But, this time, the vocal coach let his actions do the talking — offering a lengthy bear hug to Jon Graham after the struggling forward drained back-to-back buckets to help Penn State close out Penn on Saturday.
The emotional embrace between player and coach reflected the type of offensive start it has been for Graham, who entered the contest averaging just 2.3 points per game. Although the sophomore finished the game with just the two baskets, Chambers said the determination Graham showed in the final stretch of the game could be a turning point in his season.
The forward’s surge came at a crucial moment in the contest, after the Quakers brought the game to within six points with about six minutes to play.
Despite Graham having no points at the time, Chambers inserted the starter back into the game, primarily for defensive purposes.
“I know his confidence was down,” Chambers said. “[But] because he’s a great defender and I believe in him, that’s why I put him back in the game.”
On two consecutive possessions, Jermaine Marshall found Graham demanding the ball in the low post. The forward backed down his defender, made a shifty move to create separation, and assertively laid the ball into the hoop on both occasions.
Just like that, the Lions’ lead was extended back to double digits and the next timeout allowed Chambers a chance to express his praise — even after a very quiet first 35 minutes for Graham.
“But, for him to give us four points…we missed some open looks [earlier in the game], but you feel for him,” Chambers said. “That’s why I wanted to let him know that I had his back.”
Graham said, although the embrace meant a lot to him, he was quick to remember the game wasn’t over yet.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a coach come out and give me a bear hug while there was still a game going on,” Graham said. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘We got five minutes left. We got to finish this up.’”
The Lions went on to defeat Penn, 58-47, and Graham also produced on the defensive end with two blocks to seal the deal down the stretch.
The Baltimore native said the biggest difference in the game was his recognition of when the team needed him to produce offensively.
“The biggest thing is not making the moment bigger than what it is,” Graham said. “Yeah, it’s clutch and everything, and it means something at that point in the game. But, the bottom line is just confidence and knowing what you can do and stepping up.”
Graham showed a glimpse of his offensive production toward the end of last season, when he scored at least nine points in three of the last six games.
Chambers said, despite his inconsistency, the average fan probably doesn’t understand how hard Graham has worked on his offense since his arrival in Happy Valley.
“He puts the work in and he comes on his own,” Chambers said. “So, for him to make those two big plays.[he was] really confident. It was almost like a different kid, a totally different person.”