Most of the offensive production for Penn State usually rests on the shoulders of sophomores Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens — two players that can take and make just about any shot on the court, regardless of how tight a defender is guarding them.
Coach Pat Chambers’ offense is most effective when it runs through either one of their special talents.
But the engine behind the Nittany Lions’ postseason success hasn’t just been one of the widely talked about super sophomores. It’s also been seniors Shep Garner and Julian Moore.
The veteran duo has played a lot of basketball over the past four years — in Moore’s case five years because of his true freshman season getting cut short because of a fractured nose.
As detailed before, Garner is a player who’s earned a tremendous amount of respect from the younger players in the locker room because he was one of the first marquee Philadelphia recruits to commit his future to Penn State. It set the tone for players like Carr, Stevens and Mike Watkins to follow suit.
Moore, meanwhile, was given the nickname “Reverend Julian” by his teammates because of the impact his pregame prayers have on the team.
The one thing they haven’t done, though, is make a meaningful run in a postseason tournament. Until this season, Moore and Garner had not played in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
Getting their first and last chance to compete for a postseason title, they haven’t taken the opportunity for granted.
After falling a game short of the Big Ten tournament final at Madison Square Garden, Garner said he and the team were determined to get back to New York City for the NIT semifinals once they found out they were a part of the field.
“It’s great to make it to New York again, that was our goal when we started this tournament,” Garner told GoMarquette.com. “We wanted to make it to New York, and hopefully cut down some nets, man. That’s what it’s all about for us. Come together and win as many games as we can.”
Even Stevens, who matched his career high with 30 points on 14-of-22 shooting in the win over Marquette on Tuesday, credited the senior leadership for helping prepare the Nittany Lions for three straight difficult games — the last two of which came on the road in hostile environments in South Bend and Milwaukee.
Stevens also said challenging road venues in the Big Ten has primed Penn State to play in any kind of environment the NIT had to offer.
“Shep and Julian, they’ve done a great job for preparing us for intense games like this, intense environments,” Stevens told GoMarquette.com. “Playing in the Big Ten, you go in some amazing arenas every night. [Garner and Moore] and playing to the Big Ten. That’s what credit I our success to.”
It hasn’t just been preparation in practice and off-court leadership that’s seen the seniors pave the way for success, though.
Garner in particular has provided a huge scoring boost when the Nittany Lions needed it most during this three-game NIT win streak.
If not for Garner’s clutch play down the stretch in the opening round win at home against Temple, Penn State would have been one-and-done in this tournament.
Trailing the Owls by three with less than three minutes, Garner connected on his first field goal of the night to tie the score at 54.
A steal from the Chester, Pennsylvania native led to a John Harrar bucket to put the Nittany Lions ahead, and then another three from Garner pushed the lead to five and sent the Bryce Jordan Center into a frenzy.
Even with Garner and the team’s leading scorer Carr struggling for most of the night, Penn State made the necessary plays to keep their postseason hopes alive.
“I didn’t want [that] to be my last game, Garner said. “I definitely wanted to come out here and win. It came down to who wanted it more, us or them. We made the plays down the stretch to win the game.”
Building off the momentum gained with those late buckets against Temple, the next two games saw Garner light it up from 3-point land.
In the win over Notre Dame on Saturday, Garner scored 15 points, including four 3-pointers. With the Nittany Lions leading by five at halftime, Garner’s nine points propelled the team to a 22-point third quarter that would prove vital in an eventual 73-63 win.
Early in the fourth quarter Garner rolled his left ankle going up for a steal but would return later in the period to now down free throws as Notre Dame looked to foul to extend the game.
Garner’s best postseason performance to date came on Tuesday against a hot-shooting Marquette squad.
With the Golden Eagles shooting 12-of-29 from beyond the arc, Garner was equal to the task with five triples of his own. He was one of three Nittany Lions in double figures with 19 points.
Notre Dame and Marquette boasted some special senior guards of their own in Matt Farrell and Andrew Rowsey, but it was Penn State’s backcourt sharpshooter in Garner who has managed to extend his career at-least one game in pursuit of an NIT Championship.
Garner’s career might end in next Tuesday’s semifinal against Mississippi State. It might end with him and the rest of the Nittany Lions cutting down the nets at the “Mecca of basketball” for the program’s second NIT title and first since 2009.
Either way, Garner and Moore have done more than enough to leave a legacy at Penn State, according to Chambers.
“I think it’s important that these seniors leave their legacy and an imprint on this program that shows everybody that we’re headed in a really special direction,” Chambers told GoMarquette.com. “Julian and Shep have spearheaded that, with their leadership, with their play and just ‘keep pushing’ attitude. Especially when we had injuries, had some guys out, they were consistent all season long.”