Strong Second Half Propels Lions

Chambers pushes the right buttons during the halftime break as Penn State rallies past Akron.

It's not true that Penn State coach Pat Chambers declared, “Remember Puerto Rico!,” after his team was dominated by Akron in the first half of a game at the Jordan Center Tuesday night. But it was probably something close to that.

The Zips, you may recall, destroyed the Nittany Lions 85-60 in Puerto Rico on Nov. 18, 2012. State lost star guard Tim Frazier to a torn Achilles that day, and went on to a disappointing 10-21 season.

“I was on that team … and they basically embarrassed us on TV,” Lion guard D.J. Newbill said. “Coach Chambers, he remembered that. I remembered that. Some of the other guys who were here remembered that.”

It wasn't the only message Chambers had for his troops as they were staring at a 13-point halftime deficit and another potential housing at the hands of the mid-major program.

“To sum it all up in one word, he said play with pride,” Newbill said. “He said we weren't playing with pride. They came in, they jumped us, they were doing whatever they wanted to. … Coach is like, 'Play with some pride.' He felt like we were going through the motions, sleepwalking.”

The message was received. Penn State (5-1) opened the second half with a 16-0 run and controlled the pace the rest of the way in a 78-72 victory. Akron (3-2) made just 21.2 percent of its shots in the final 20 minutes.

“I give them credit,” Zips coach Keith Dambrot said. “They did a good job at halftime of rallying their troops.”

Chambers minced no words in his halftime speech.

“We always like to give them five things that we need to adjust,” he said. “We didn't need five (tonight). … There was no energy or juice. Sometimes it just comes down to wearing the jersey, taking pride in everything we've been through here the last three and a half years.”

Penn State opened the second half by dominating both ends of the floor. The Lions switched between man and zone, and forced Akron to miss its first 10 shots. Offensively, Newbill got others involved. The half opened with a Ross Travis dunk and State began to score nearly at will in the paint.

It was 48-45 PSU after the 16-0 run before back-to-back scores by Noah Robotham stopped the bleeding for the Zips. But it was only temporary. The Lions went ahead for good (58-54) on a John Johnson layup with 9:18 to go, and led by eight on multiple occasions.

Akron scrambled by fouling to cut it to 74-72 with 17 seconds left, but Newbill sealed it with a pair of free throws and then Johnson hit another layup to account for the final.

There was some strategy involved in the rally, as PSU used the zone to push out and prevent Akron from getting as many open 3-pointers as it did in the first half. But that was not the key, in Chambers' view.

'“It really came down to playing with pride and having faith in one another and trying to get it done,” the coach said.

“It really came down to playing with pride and having faith in one another and trying to get it done.”

The Zips came out hot to start the game, dropping three of their first four 3-pointers to forge an early 13-6 lead, and maintained control throughout the first half. Akron led by as many as 14 (32-18) before taking a 45-32 advantage into the locker room

A big part of the problem for Penn State was a lack of offensive balance.

Through the first 15 minutes-plus, and with the Lions trailing 34-23, Newbill (12) and forward Brandon Taylor (8) had combined for all but three of PSU's points. Big men Travis, Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson pulled another disappearing act, combining to miss all six of their shots to that point.

The script flipped in the second half.

“We're taught to play 40 minutes,” Newbill said. “The first half was over. Coach always says, forget what happened in the first half.”

But not what happened at halftime. Asked if he used the loss in Puerto Rico as a motivator, Chambers smiled.

“It may have been mentioned,” he said.

Individual Numbers

Newbill led Penn State with 29 points and five assists. … Taylor had 14, and made 4 of 11 triples. … Dickerson blocked four shots. … Travis had nine rebounds. … Robotham led the Zips with 18.

Team Numbers

After allowing 29 offensive rebounds in a win against USC Sunday, the Lions allowed only 11 Tuesday. … Penn State blocked nine shots, six of them in the second half. … The Lions made 63.6 percent of their shots in the second half.

Shep Struggles

Rookie guard Shep Garner had a tough night for the Lions, making only 2 of 11 shots. He spent much of the second half on the bench because Thorpe and Johnson were playing well.

But Chambers was proud of the rookie starter for handling the situation well.

“That's gonna happen, everybody's gonna have a bad night,” the coach said. “This is what's great about the kid, this is why he's a winner. He's totally fine with it. He just wants to compete and win. If he's in, he's in. If he isn't, he's OK. He just wants to see the team play well.”

Long Trip

Both teams were coming off weekend appearances in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic. The Lions got home Sunday night, after flying a charter. The Zips did not get home until Monday because they had to fly commercial. Then they had to turn around and bus to PSU.

That at least in part explained why they ran out of steam in the second half.

“It might have been charter vs. non-charter, who knows?” Dambrot said. “That's the advantage of the high-major.”

Next Up…

… for Penn State is a Black Friday trip down Rt. 45 to take on Bucknell. The game tips at 4 p.m., and is not slated to be televised.

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