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February 13, 2014
Column: A fighting spirit
The phone line couldn't contain Patrick Chambers.
Speaking to host Dan Dakich Thursday afternoon for a radio interview - broadcast to the heart of Hoosier country just one night after having its heart forcibly removed - the Nittany Lions' third-year head coach recounted his team's stunning 66-65 win at Assembly Hall.
"You know where I am right now - I'm at the bottom of the league, and I've been looking up for the last three years - you know where I'm at," Chambers said, laughing. "It was such a... I gotta say relief. I don't know what other word to tell you.
"It was a relief to say, 'Wow, we're still keeping it together. Tough loss on Sunday to Illinois, but they didn't get down.' You're just so proud of your guys. There's nothing like a road win, getting on a plane and going home."
From a snow-covered Happy Valley on Thursday, Chambers' excitement is more than a warranted.
His Nittany Lions, having trailed a young-but-talented Indiana squad for the entirety of Wednesday night's game, managed to throw a return punch - however slight - at every knockout the Hoosiers had in their arsenal. From true freshman guard Graham Woodward's timely 3-pointers to John Johnson, Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack's combined 26 points, all on an off-night for star guard D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions were worthy of Teddy KGB's best line in Rounders:
"Hanging around, hanging around. Kid's got alligator blood. Can't get rid of him."
Sound anything like Tim Frazier?
Saying his senior willed the team to a win, Chambers didn't have time in the interview to recount all of the diminutive point guard's game-winning plays. Seemingly on the verge of tears following his layup to take the lead with just 6 seconds to play, and in his postgame BTN interview, Frazier cares deeply.
In fact, during a season in which Murphy's Law has applied in more late-game losses than conceivable - even by Penn State's standards - that Chambers' group remained engaged while trailing by 11 points with just 2:30 left to play is telling.
Said Chambers, "You can watch body language in the huddle. You can see who is dialed in Everybody is chained up and they just know the goal. They know the task at hand and they're all trying to accomplish that. When you see that, I'm telling you, you're giving yourself a chance.
"When your team is like that, you know that you're going to make a little bit of a run and something good is going to happen."
To be clear, to any other rational human playing the hands Chambers has been dealt this season, knowing that "something good is going to happen" would not be a given.
Of course, that's what makes Chambers' feistiness so infectious. Paired with the beating heart of Frazier - still battling the after-effects of last year's devastating Achilles tear - the Nittany Lions left Bloomington with a win for the first time since 2009 and, equally impressive, for just the third time in program history (3-17).
Earlier this week, a friend interested in Penn State hoops called to talk about the team's miserable Sunday afternoon loss against Illinois at the Bryce Jordan Center, 60-55.
Convinced that the dragged out scoring drought to end the game was a sign of disengagement and a "lost team", I argued that one of the Nittany Lions' best defensive performances of the season, holding the Illini to 12 points less than opponents' scoring average in the Big Ten, proved the exact opposite. Competing with players that few conference opponents would trade for, save for Frazier and Newbill, the inevitable scoring drought or defensive lapse are going to happen. But by maintaining the sense of spirit (ahem: #attitude) instilled by Chambers since his first day on campus, the gap between routinely getting blown out, becoming competitive and now, winning, is closing.
"We say one, two, three, attitude. We don't say defense, we don't say Penn State, we don't say Nittany Lions. We say one, two, three, attitude, because that's all we can control," Chambers said, serving up a subtle but well-deserved shot. "I can't control the refs. But what we can control is our attitude, our effort, our energy, our enthusiasm. We can't control the environment.
"Too often with 18 to 23 year olds, we compound the problem. We make a mistake, it leads to two or three mistakes in consecutive possessions. That word is starting to help us get through those times of missed shots, turnovers, poor rotation, missed free throw, maybe a bad foul, something like that. It's been huge."
Winning four of their past six games, the Nittany Lions have now lifted themselves from an 0-6 start to the conference schedule to sit just two games behind in the Big Ten standings of its fourth-place team, Wisconsin.
Will it be enough to produce the postseason run the handful of program supporters have been hoping for? At this point, the odds aren't great.
But with Chambers at the helm and his scrappy underdogs refusing to sit quietly in the coffin, betting against their success isn't wise.
Said Chambers, "These kids are so resilient. It's a credit to their character and what they want to do and what they want to strive for.
"We might get knocked out and we might get knocked down a lot, but these guys keep punching, they keep getting back up and try to get better."
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