Wednesday, February 27, 2013
PSU's Chambers savors breakthrough win
By Dana O'Neil
The virtual glass sitting on Pat Chambers’ desk wasn’t just half-empty; it was cracked straight through and emptying like a sieve.
His Penn State basketball team was 0-14 in the Big Ten this season, winless over its previous 18 games in the league. The Nittany Lions were on a path of ignominy, destined to join DePaul's 2009 Big East entry in the ranks of conference futility.
Except every time Chambers looked at that stinking, leaking glass, he saw something in it.
Had the man stood on the deck of the Titanic, he probably would have remarked at the pretty stars.
He is that optimistic, that positive-thinking.
That he was able to retain his optimism in Misery Valley this season -- where injury to Tim Frazier predetermined the insult -- is stunning.
That he somehow passed it on to his players is a miracle.
Yet there were the Nittany Lions, about to do the impossible and upset the No. 4 team in the nation, huddling close to their coach without even a blink of panic.
"It was fierce focus," Chambers told ESPN.com. "We were ready to win. We’d worked on end-game situations in practices, so I had 15 guys in that huddle looking at me with big eyes just asking, ‘OK, how do we finish this game?’ And they executed it beautifully."
With the exception of TCU’s upset of Kansas, there might not be a more improbable score in this season full of improbable scores than Penn State 84, Michigan 78.
Expectations had dipped so low in State College, Pa., that in order to rush the floor, some students and fans first had to pick their way through the empty seats to get courtside.
Penn State coach Pat Chambers lauded his players' "fierce focus" in finishing off No. 4 Michigan.
"I wanted them to have a moment," Chambers said of his players. "They worked so hard and I just kept thinking and hoping, ‘Let them taste victory just one time.’ With all this hard work, there’s got to be some results."
The fact is, Penn State had been threatening for a few weeks. A blocked shot with 21 seconds left dashed the Nittany Lions' hopes of beating Iowa and they ended up losing by two Feb. 14; they were tied with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor at the half three days later before losing by eight; they trailed by three with 5 seconds to go against Illinois last Thursday and wound up losing by five.
A team that simply couldn’t score without Frazier, who was injured in November, solved its own riddle. In Penn State’s first 11 Big Ten games combined, the Lions hit 44 3-pointers. In the past four, they’ve sunk 32, including 10 against Michigan.
"These guys have been totally engaged with what we were saying and what we were trying to accomplish," Chambers said. “They didn’t let the outside distractions of ‘They’re no good; they can’t win in that league’ get to them. And they got better. I kept telling them the results might not be there, but we are better."
Yes, all of that goes to the players, certainly, but also the coach.
Penn State doesn’t exactly have a rich tradition to call on -- the Lions' previous victory against a top-five team came during the 2001 NCAA tournament.
That part Chambers knew. What he didn’t know was that he was walking into a volcano about to blow when he took the job two years ago. The Jerry Sandusky scandal has tainted the entire school’s reputation, and last summer, Chambers admitted that people looked at him a little funny when he wore his gear out recruiting.
Mix in this season, one where the Nittany Lions started out thinking they could compete in the Big Ten and had those hopes all but dashed with Frazier’s injury, and you’ve got a run of bad fortune that only Job could relate to.
Yet here’s Chambers.
Staring at that glass.
On Wednesday night, it wasn’t only half-full, it was time to raise it.