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Penn State hoops tops VMI in opener

From staff reports

UNIVERSITY PARK–The Penn State men’s basketball team opened its 2020-21 season with a 21-point victory over Virginia Military Institute (VMI), 86-65, on Saturday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center. Paced by a career day by senior guard Jamari Wheeler, the Nittany Lions poured in 11 3-pointers, along with 40 points inside the paint.

Wheeler’s career-best four 3-pointers helped him produce a career-high with 18 points in the season opener as the Nittany Lions posted their 250th win in the BJC. Wheeler also added six rebounds and his five steals pushed him into the No. 9 spot on PSU’s career steals chart with 152.

“All of us are just really grateful for the opportunity to play this game,” Penn State coach Jim Ferry said. “It’s been so long. I mean, it’s probably almost been, close to 300 days since we played our last game. These guys have worked really, really hard. They have really sacrificed a lot. That goes for everybody, everybody who was able to help us put the games together and to be able to go out here and play tonight was a big deal for us, it really was.

“With that said, I think it looks like we hadn’t played in 300 days,” Ferry said. We had a lot of rust and guys getting to know each other — first competition, not against ourselves — in a long time, and a lot of practices, and I think we really just needed this. We needed this, to play against somebody else. We needed to play against someone in a different uniform running different things, challenging us in different ways.”

In total, the Nittany Lions had five players finish in double-figures in scoring. Junior guard Izaiah Brockington finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Sophomore Seth Lundy, junior Myreon Jones and junior Sam Sessoms each finished with 12 points each.

The win was Penn State’s fourth-straight season opening victory and 15th of the last 16 years. For Ferry, it was his 12th-straight win in a home opener and first at Penn State.

The Nittany Lions offense clicked on all cylinders in the second 20 minutes of action. Penn State shot 51.4 percent from the field and made seven-of-11 3-pointers while limiting the Keydets to just nine total field goals in the second half.

Wheeler scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half, going 4-of-8 from the field, while making both shots he attempted from beyond the arc. Free throws by Brockington tied the game at 45 and then gave Penn State a one-point advantage at 46-45 just 5:27 into the second half.

Sessoms stole the ball and set up Wheeler for a trey, then four different Nittany Lions hit field goals en route to a 13-point lead at 63-48 halfway through the second half.

The Nittany Lions opened the game on an 8-3 run behind two quick buckets from Brockington. The Keydets erased their early deficit with efficiency, using a 22-6 run to grab a 26-14 lead with 7:19 remaining in the opening half. Penn State struggled early from beyond the arc, shooting only 23.5 percent after starting 0-of-7.

Sessoms’ effort off the bench sparked the Nittany Lions with five-straight points as part of a 14-1 run to claim a 28-27 lead with just under three to go in the half. Wheeler gave Penn State the halftime 37-35 lead with a deep triple at the buzzer going into the break.

Penn State added 13 more steals to Wheeler’s five and tied the BJC single-game record with 18. The Nittany Lions had 18 steals vs. Fairleigh Dickinson on Nov. 12, 2017.

Penn State plays host to VCU on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at 5 p.m. in its next contest. The game will be broadcast on FS1.

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