Milwaukee, WI – If playing in the National Invitational Tournament is a consolation prize for teams that came up short in their pursuit of an NCAA tournament bid, the Penn State Nittany Lions are continuing to make the most of their NIT opportunity. After a home win against Temple and a road victory at Notre Dame, Penn State traveled to Milwaukee on Tuesday night to defeat the Marquette Golden Eagles 85-80 to punch its ticket to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden.
The Nittany Lions road the high-scoring abilities of sophomores Lamar Stevens and Tony Carr and senior Shep Garner in jumping out to a three-point first quarter lead and playing from ahead the rest of the game. That trio combined for 74 of Penn State’s 85 points. Marquette made fourth-quarter charges to make it a two possession game on more than one occasion, but Penn State had answers for Marquette’s runs and in the process disappointed a sellout crowd of 3,670 in a game played at The Al McGuire Center, Marquette’s on-campus gym.
“Tony Carr is a big-time player,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “Stevens had an amazing game and Shep Garner is really good, too. I thought earlier in the game we got really knocked back by their physicality. That’s as physical a team across the board as we’ve played. I think they knocked us back with their physicality and athleticism.”
Stevens, a 6-8 big with a mature body who was recently named to the Honorable Mention All-Big Ten Team, ignited the Penn State offense in the first quarter by scoring 12 of his game-high 30 points. He muscled his way to where he wanted and scored from the elbow to the rim. Stevens scored twice after triggering inbound plays under the Penn State basket and his two scores at the rim in the last 90 seconds of the game silenced Marquette comeback attempts.
A First Team All-Big Ten performer this season, the 6-5 Carr is a lean combination guard built along the lines of former NBA guard Ray Allen. Entering the game shooting a Big Ten third-best 45 percent from behind the three-point arc, Carr misfired on all his three shots from distance against Marquette. But he more than compensated by connecting on seven of twelve shots from inside the arc. He played at a great pace and made the Marquette defense pay when it allowed one of its two sub-six foot tall guards–Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard–to guard Carr without help from a secondary defender. Forced often to foul Carr to prevent clean looks in the paint, the Marquette defense paid for sending him to the free throw line as Carr converted 11 of 14 free throw attempts on his way to scoring 25 points.
Garner is a powerfully built 6-2 two-guard with a sweet shooting stroke that he used to knock down an average of almost three triples each game to share the Big Ten lead in three-point shots made per game. He came out aggressively on Tuesday night swishing all three of his shots from distance in the first quarter. Garner shoots mostly off the catch and likes shooting from the wing areas. He finished the night making five of eight shots from distance in scoring 19 points. “I thought our team stayed together in a hostile environment, and that was in great part because of the great leadership of Shep,” said Penn State Coach Pat Chambers.
Marquette got 50 points from Rowsey (29) and Howard (21), but came up short on the scoreboard and saw its season end with a 21-14 record. Rowsey was his usual electric self from behind the three-point arc making six of eleven attempts. The fifth-year senior uses jab steps, step-back dribbles and a quick release to get his shot off against the taller defenders he usually finds himself playing against. He even has an answer when closely guarded as Rowsey is adept at lifting his defender with a shot fake to draw contact and get the foul call. He drew two fouls shooting behind the arc against Penn State and according to the Marquette sports information staff, finished the season with 33 fouls called against his defender when shooting from distance. Defenses found putting Rowsey to the foul line to be a failed strategy as he finished the season making over 90 percent of his free throw attempts.
“Andrew had a real good season and has had a real good two years at Marquette,” said Wojciechowski. “Our program is not in the position it is to really take off without Andrew. His college career was remarkable and we’ve been fortunate he was on our side.” Rowsey, a native of Lexington, Virginia, played his first two seasons at North Carolina-Asheville and is one of only five players in the history of division one college basketball to score 1,000 or more points at two different schools. Rowsey’s six triples gave him 125 for the season, a total that eclipsed the Marquette record for three-point makes in a season that had been held by 11-year NBA veteran Steve Novak with 121.
Wojciechowski called the Marquette season a “great success. We were 4-7 in the Big East at one point with the youngest team in the league. A lot of young teams would have mailed it in at that point–this is too hard–but our team didn’t. This was an unbelievable group to be around. Even on days where I didn’t like what they were doing, I loved them. I have great respect for every kid in that locker room and I’m going to miss being around them. This is as enjoyable a group as I’ve ever been around.”
Rowsey is the only Marquette player whose eligibility will expire. “We’ll finally have one or two upper classmen next year which will be nice, I think,” said Wojciechowski through a smile. He did have two this year in Rowsey and center Matt Heldt and figures to have six next season, by far the most of any of what will be his fifth group at Marquette in 2018-19. Once sophomore Haanif Cheatham transferred from Marquette to Florida Gulf Coast in December, the first three players off the Marquette bench as the Golden Eagles embarked on the Big East season were freshmen Jamal Cain, Greg Elliott and Theo John. “Those (freshmen) kids answered the bell,” said the Marquette coach. “We had some big wins where those kids stepped up big time.”
Meanwhile, Penn State will return to Madison Square Garden for the second time this season when it will face Mississippi State on March 27 in a NIT semifinal game. The Nittany Lions defeated Northwestern and Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament at the Garden the first week of March before getting eliminated by Purdue. “Making it to New York is great,” said Garner. “That was our goal when we started the NIT.”
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can follow us on Facebook, or on twitter. We are looking for those interested in our basketball scout certification program. For information contact us and forward your resume.