Izaiah Brockington (above) set a new career high as Penn State topped Iowa at a crazy Palestra. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Lamar Stevens and Izaiah Brockington have heard the Palestra get loud before.
The 2016 Catholic League semifinals –– Feb. 17, 2016 –– saw both Brockington and Stevens get their first feel of the Cathedral of College Basketball. Stevens, then a senior at Roman Catholic, helped the Cahillites capture the PCL championship after two instant-classic games against Archbishop Carroll and Neumann-Goretti. Brockington, then a junior at Archbishop Ryan, saw his squad bounced by Neumann in their semifinal matchup.
As it always is for the final few games of the Catholic League season, the Palestra was packed to the gills that night, two games almost directly split between two rabid fanbases, with a healthy mix of basketball enthusiasts just along for the show. Just like every year, it’s one of the hottest tickets around.
But the pair of Philly natives and Catholic League alums hadn’t heard the Palestra like it was on Saturday afternoon. With No. 21 Penn State playing host to No. 23 Iowa in front of a stuffed-to-the-corners crowd of 7,881 consisting of almost entirely a sea of blue and white, the Palestra was rocking like nothing the two Nittany Lions had ever experienced.
“Playing in high school is great, but it’s nothing like coming back and playing in college,” Stevens said. “The environment and just how loud the crowd gets and gets into it, and it’s mainly only Penn State in the gym, just cheering only for us, it’s different, it’s louder, it’s intense.
“I liked it better in college.”
The crowd swelled to what seemed like an apex just before tipoff, when a Penn State squad with six players from the Philadelphia area took the court for its final warmups, then again during player introductions. It reached a new crescendo midway through the first half, when Stevens –– a senior wing and the team’s Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, not to mention one of the best in Nittany Lions’ history –– took one of Iowa’s 15 turnovers and slammed home a tomahawk dunk, rocking the 93-year-old arena.
By the end, when Penn State had passed another test with an 89-86, come-from-behind win for its second win this season over a ranked opponent, the decibel meter had broken.
“I feel like it exceeded my expectations,” Brockington said. “Coming in here in high school, we had about half the gym cheering for you. But coming in and just seeing the whiteout and having all of our fans there supporting us every step of the way like that, definitely gave us a big advantage.”
Saturday’s win was the continuation of a season of Penn State basketball that’s certainly seemed to see the Nittany Lions take another step forward after spending the first eight seasons of Pat Chambers’ tenure battling to stay relevant in the Big Ten. It looked like that step might happen two years ago, when a 26-win PSU squad won the NIT, but starting point guard Tony Carr –– Stevens’ teammate at Roman Catholic –– turned pro after his sophomore year, leading to a disappointing 14-18 (7-13) season last year. Chambers’ name was on the chopping block coming into this season, as it seemed like his last chance to prove he could win at Penn State.
Lamar Stevens (above) had 16 points, including a key late bucket for the Nittany Lions. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Beating Iowa made it five wins in a row for the Nittany Lions (12-2, 2-1), whose only losses came to Mississippi (9-4) and AP No. 5 Ohio State (11-3).
Mirroring the growth that the Penn State program has made over the years has been the evolution of Brockington, who led the Nittany Lions with a career-high 23 point outing against the Hawkeyes (10-4, 1-2), getting his production in 24 minutes off the bench. With Stevens (16 points) struggling with fouls early and the other Penn State guards struggling from the arc, it was Brockington’s mid-range and driving abilities which kept them in it through the middle 20 minutes.
“It was definitely really impressive...he really kept us afloat,” said Stevens, who came up with a crucial layup in the final minute to stretch Penn State’s lead to four after they’d trailed by seven midway through the second half. “Iowa’s a great team, and they struggled to guard Zay when he got into the middle of the zone or got into the paint. He made big time plays, he’s a big-time player though so that’s what I expect from him.”
While he was a standout at Archbishop Ryan, it wasn’t until his junior year that Brockington really started getting serious college attention, and he was originally committed to NJIT before re-opening his recruitment and committing to St. Bonaventure.
Two years after averaging 4.3 ppg as a freshman for the Bonnies, he’s averaging in double figures for a top-25 team in a high-major conferences.
“I really believe he’s still trying to prove himself that he’s worthy of playing in the Big Ten, so he comes into practice trying to prove that he is a Big Ten basketball player, that he is a high-level player,” Chambers said. “It’s like he’s trying to earn a scholarship, and I’m not going to tell him he has one.”
Brockington’s game isn’t remarkably different than it was when he was at Ryan, where he scored 1,292 to finish as the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer, passing his head coach Joe Zeglinski along the way.
He’s still an athletic guard who relies on his slashing abilities, with good defensive intensity, who thrives in transition. His shot is more refined, especially from the mid-range, though he’s still working on his 3-point shot (7-of-30, 23.3%). There’s a bit more muscle on his 6-foot-4 frame, more refinement to his shot selection and understanding of offensive and defensive flow.
“I remember playing against him in high school, and he could dunk, but...it was nothing really impressive,” Stevens said. “But now, he (came) up to school and he was doing crazy dunks and just being super-aggressive and just showing off his speed. I think his game has definitely grown a lot since high school, and he’s proven that he’s a high-quality, high-level Big Ten player.”
“He’s making 3s in practice,” Chambers said. “He’s got a great midrange game, he’s an elite finisher, I think the last thing for him is 3s.”
Brockington’s role is only going to grow as he stays at Penn State, with Stevens and grad student Curtis Jones both exhausting their eligibility after this season. That’ll open up minutes and shots for him as well as 6-6 freshman wing Seth Lundy, another Roman Catholic alum; Lundy finished with seven points and three rebounds in 10 minutes against Iowa.
The two high school losses at the Palestra are in the past, as are the recruiting journeys, the doubting, the feeling of being overlooked and under-respected. As Izaiah Brockington let the whole country know on Saturday, he can play with anybody.
“It means so much just to think of where I was in high school, as a junior and as a senior, like, it’s everything I dreamed of, man,” Brockington said. “It’s a dream come true, definitely, to put this uniform on every night.”