The Nittany Lions broke open a tight contest with a flurry to start the second half, clicking off 11 unanswered points to grab a 44-29 lead before cruising to a 74-64 victory in their season-opener. Forward Geary Claxton led the way with 23 points and 10 boards.
The Flash fell to 0-2, but kept things respectable in the final 15 minutes thanks to the deadeye shooting of sixth man Grant Surprenant (20 points, 6 of 9 from the arc).
The start of the second half really got us in trouble, St. Francis coach Bobby Jones said.
Did it ever.
Penn State led 33-29 at the break, but Lion coach Ed DeChellis was less than thrilled. With six new faces in the program — all of whom played in the opening 20 minutes — DeChellis could sense his troops were a bit nervous in the opener.
First half, lord we were so tight, he explained.
The halftime talk centered on State using its superior athletic ability to generate easy buckets. Said juco transfer guard Stanley Pringle, whose seven steals were one off the school record: We couldn't hit shots on the offensive end, so they told us to focus more on the defensive end, to get steals.
The Flash unwittingly played into the strategy by forcing quick shots, and when the tempo of the game hit overdrive they didn't have a chance. Following a series of misses by both clubs, Claxton went coast to coast off a bricked triple attempt by Devin Sweetney. Then a Bassirou Deng turnover led to a Mike Walker 3-pointer.
Oh, the Flash made things interesting at times, climbing as close as 51-46 when Chris Berry made a pair of free throws midway through the half. But every time St. Francis crept close, the Lions stepped on the gas and pulled away.
Claxton credits the addition of two new speedy guards — Pringle and true freshman Talor Battle (12 points) — for bringing that new dimension to the program. The past several years, the Lions have been unable to run away from anyone.
It makes it easier because sometimes we get easy points from that, Claxton said of the faster pace. This year we can rely on transition points.
The only Red Flash player with the athleticism to keep up with the Lions was gifted sophomore forward Devin Sweetney, but he had his hands full while being defended by Claxton (12 points on 4-of-13 shooting). Surprenant did most of his damage when the Lions got lazy on defense. After scoring 18 in the opener, Berry was limited to 2-of-9 shooting this time out, and did not score in the game's first 29 minutes.
And point guard Cale Nelson really struggled with PSU's speed. His crazy stat line included 3-of-11 shooting, seven assists and seven turnovers.
Despite winning in relatively comfortable fashion, DeChellis had more than a few nits to pick, too. Overall, he did not think the Lions were aggressive enough defensively. He was also unhappy with his team's spacing in the set offense. And finally, he wants to see Pringle and Battle force the pace even more in transition.
They don't understand how hard they have to push the ball yet, DeChellis said.
Asked about the duo's combined 5-of-19 showing from the field, and the fact that Pringle missed a breakaway layup, the coach said, That's correctable.
Then he added: You can't make a guy faster, you can't make a guy jump higher. There is nothing you can do with that stuff. The implication was, obviously, that for the first time in his five seasons in Happy Valley, a lack of overall athleticism might not be a problem.
In this game, at least, PSU's improved speed proved to be the difference.
Penn State was without junior forward Jamelle Cornley, who is out indefinitely with what is being called a bruised bone in his left knee. Cornley is off crutches but DeChellis said he does not know when he'll be cleared to play.
The starting lineup featured Walker, Morrissey, Claxton, freshman forward Jeff Brooks and senior center Brandon Hassell. But DeChellis subbed for everyone but Claxton at or before the first media timeout.
Hassell had a career-high 11 rebound in only 23 minutes.
Jackson started the second half in place of Brooks. He finished with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting.
Walker and Morrissey led the Lions with 27 minutes each. No one else played more than 25. Battle and (24) and Pringle (20) both saw significant action.
Schyler King logged two minutes in the first half in place of Claxton at small forward. But most of the time Claxton was out in this game, DeChellis went with a three-guard look, with Morrissey taking over the three spot.
Next up for Penn State is a home date with Canisius Friday at 7 p.m.