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Nittany Lions battle, fall short of N.C. State

For nearly 30 minutes, Penn State stuck with 1-loss N.C. State at the Boardwalk Classic in Atlantic City, N.J., Saturday afternoon.

Then, the Nittany Lions lost track of the Wolfpack.

With star junior forward Lamar Stevens sidelined for much of the second half with four fouls, a brief second-half lead turned quickly into a double-digit deficit, and ultimately, an 89-78 loss.

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Penn State junior Lamar Stevens played just 22 minutes Saturday against N.C. State with foul trouble.

The Lions’ fate wasn’t a predetermined outcome though.

Against the Wolfpack’s No. 8-ranked scoring offense (88.9 points per game), the Nittany Lions opened to a 7-2 advantage in the game’s first three minutes.

N.C. State’s scoring deficiencies wouldn’t last long, however, an 8-0 run beginning five minutes into the game propelling the Wolfpack to a 13-9 lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the half.

Even as N.C. State increased its lead to two or three possessions, Penn State managed to trade baskets to keep the deficit within reach. By the time the Nittany Lions reeled off a quick Josh Reaves 3-pointer followed by a fast-break dunk at the 4:48 mark, they trailed just 30-28.

Trouble loomed, however.

An N.C. State layup was preceded by a Penn State possession in which Stevens was tagged for an offensive foul on a dribble handoff. Having entered the game just eight-seconds prior, the debatable call - one which drew the ire of Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers - sent Stevens to the bench for the final 3:58 of the half with three fouls.

Despite the setback, a Mike Watkins dunk (10 points, 5 rebounds) with 18 seconds left sent the two teams into their locker rooms with the score set at 40-37.

Foul trouble for Stevens continued to lurk at the start of the second half, called for an offensive foul on a drive to the basket - his third called offensive foul of the game - coming just moments after he’d scored on a similar play to make it a 48-46 game.

Sent to the bench with his fourth foul, the Nittany Lions found a lifeline in sophomore point guard Jamari Wheeler, who came off the bench to score seven points in the second half (9 points, 5 rebounds). Knocking down an and-one off the back of a Rasir Bolton 3-pointer, Wheeler, in fact, gave the Nittany Lions a brief 56-55 advantage from the free throw line with 12:53 left in the game.

Quickly, the Wolfpack upended that course as the offensive prowess they'd displayed coming into the game came fully to fruition.

Beginning with a Markell Johnson 3-pointer, N.C. State steadied itself to retake a lead, then burst ahead to a 64-58 lead on the back of a Penn State scoring drought and turnovers. With four fouls himself, State big man D.J. Funderburk made his own 5-0 run and scored nine of his 12 points in just five minutes, turning the Wolfpack’s lead into a 73-64 advantage with 5:35 to play as the Nittany Lions’ idled offensively.

Extending their lead to as many as 16 points, the Wolfpack kept the Nittany Lions at arm’s length from that point on, eventually closing the game out at the free throw line. In the second half, the Wolfpack hit 70.8 percent of their shots (17 of 24 from the floor).

The loss drops Penn State to 5-5 on the season with two more road games on deck at Duquesne and at Alabama before closing out the nonconference schedule after Christmas at the Bryce Jordan Center against UMBC.