Penn State handles La Salle

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State couldn’t beat central Pennsylvania.

But the Nittany Lions are now 2-for-2 against Philadelphia this season, having dropped La Salle, 79-72, Tuesday night at the Bryce Jordan Center. The win came four days after a win at Penn, and six after a troubling home defeat to Bucknell.

Now at 3-1, the Nittany Lion men’s basketball team has some reasons to feel good as it gears up for four games in the Barclays Classic, which begins Sunday.

Not only did Penn State beat a returning Sweet 16 team in the Explorers (2-2), all five starters scored in double figures for the first time in a year, sophomore center Donovan Jack scored a game- and career-high 18 points with 4-for-6 shooting on 3-pointers, and fifth-year senior point guard Tim Frazier tied a career high with 11 assists as he continues his comeback season from a torn Achilles tendon.

“(Donovan) had a great game. His birthday was yesterday, and now today this game,” Frazier said. “His shot gives us lot of options, and not a lot of fives can do that. But when he’s knocking them down, we’re a hard team to beat.”

Jack had five points during a 17-4 Penn State run that turned a 56-52 deficit with 13:03 to play into a 69-60 lead with 4:14 to go. La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini said his team did little right during that run, in addition to struggling with the matchup Penn State presented.

Even though La Salle’s front court of Steve Zack (6-foot-11) and Jerrell Wright (6-foot-8) posed a size advantage over Jack (6-foot-9) and Brandon Taylor (6-foot-7), Jack and Taylor’s ability to step outside and shoot 3-pointers negated that some.

Start calling him Donovan Jack-up-a-3, then. Why not?

“He’ll be open all year long. Big guys struggle to clear the arc,” Giannini said. “They’re hard to match up with. They have decent size, but their big guys are more shooters than back-to-basket guys.”

Frazier, Taylor, and D.J. Newbill each scored 15 points and Ross Travis added 13. Taylor hit two 3-pointers, and Travis, the most conventional of the Nittany Lion forwards, even hit one.

Frazier had 11 assists to one turnover. He also scored perhaps the game’s most memorable basket, catching an over-the-shoulder three-quarter court pass from Newbill, then outrunning defender Khalid Lewis to dunk for a 75-64 lead with 2:48 to play.

The play, which Frazier said was called by coach Pat Chambers, looked more like something from a football game. Frazier resisted temptation to brag like a prima donna wide receiver, crediting the one-armed pass by Newbill.

“It came in the flow of the game. Dunks always give us the boost …” Frazier said. “But just to stick it out on the court with these five guys is something special.”

The Nittany Lions struggled again some with their perimeter defense, though some sloppy shooting by La Salle, especially in the second half, kept that from becoming fatal. That wasn’t the case last week, when Bucknell shot 60 percent against the Nittany Lions, who lost to the Bison for the first time since 1976.

But winning Saturday against Penn at the Palestra and again Tuesday over La Salle had Chambers more upbeat. Penn State-Philadelphia connections were all over Tuesday night, from the Explorers starting guard Taylor Dunn, son of former Nittany Lion head coach Jerry Dunn, to La Salle having six players on its roster from the greater Philadelphia area.

Penn State has the Philadelphia native Chambers, as well as Newbill, Taylor, and reserves John Johnson and Julian Moore from that area. Add incoming recruit Shep Taylor from Roman Catholic, who signed early last week along with Williamsport’s Isaiah Washington, and these last two victories are exactly the results Chambers wants. He’s trying to make more inroads in the state’s biggest city where elite prospects have gone elsewhere since at least Wilt Chamberlain.

Chambers said it started now with Newbill, the first Philadelphia-area player on this roster to join when he transferred from Southern Mississippi.

“You win, you get recruits and you get more people in the stands,” Chambers said. “You get more people in the stands, and it’s what we need to do. It’s all about building relationships and trust.”