UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The first half of Rutgers matchup with Penn State Saturday afternoon was nearly a mirror image of the Scarlet Knights ugly midweek loss to Nebraska.
The visitors found themselves in another rockfight filled with tough defense and two struggling offenses — just the way Rutgers likes it.
With two and a half minutes remaining in the first frame, the Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions were locked at 23. Rutgers had Penn State right where it wanted it.
The second half was a different story.
The Nittany Lions built on a 5-0 run in the final minute before halftime with a 9-0 run in the first five minutes of the second frame. Rutgers found itself in a 14-point hole it could not dig out of, one which eventually grew to 18 points before settling at the game’s 60-43 final score.
“I felt like it affected us a bit,” said forward Eugene Omoruyi on the 9-0 run. “It was kind of like a punch to us.”
The closest the Scarlet Knights came to a comeback was reducing the deficit to seven points with 11 minutes to play. The run was fueled by its second unit, powered by Omoruyi, Mamadou Doucoure and Issa Thiam with Souf Mensah at point guard.
“I felt like we were coming back with the second lineup,” Omoruyi said. “I felt like we played hard and we were coming back.”
Penn State quickly squabbled any hope of a turnaround quickly, though, as it responded with a 19-8 run that doubled as a dunk contest. All the while, the Scarlet Knights offense had no answer as it continued to sputter, this time finishing with a 31.4 percent clip.
“Have to give Penn State a lot of credit,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Pat’s done a real good job, obviously, he’s got good players. Needed to just grind in this game, but couldn’t make a shot. It kind of got away from us a little bit and our inability to score affects us sometimes on the defensive end. But give Penn State a lot of credit. Coming in, they beat a great Ohio State team that was playing great. I love their talent that they’ve assembled and they do a really good job so we have to do better than that on the road.”
Rutgers now stands at 12-10 overall with a 2-7 record in the Big Ten. With eight games to play, the Scarlet Knights need to win half in order to guarantee their first season at or above .500 since 2006. Omoruyi concedes breaking that streak has been a topic in the locker room, but the larger focus is on a smaller scale.
“That’s something we’ve talked about as a team. But we’re just trying to win and (have a winning year),” he said. “Nobody likes losing so I just feel like we’re trying to win. Come out every game and fight and just get that (win).”
That process begins with a reset across the board, Omoruyi said.
“I just felt like we could’ve played a bit harder,” Omoruyi said. “We just gotta group up tomorrow, (have a) team meeting, talk about things that we can do to keep up with our strengths. “I feel like we just didn’t execute or just didn’t do stuff we are (normally) doing. I feel like this game was kind of a bit rough, but we’ll come back out next game and try harder … Just regroup and talk things out. Talk to different guys about how their role could’ve helped the team and stuff like that. Coach (Pikiell) knows what’s best for us. We got practice tomorrow and we’ll get back so we’re just gonna come together and like I said, regroup and start focusing on our strengths.”
1) Struggles continue for Issa, Corey
A little under a year ago, Corey Sanders carried Rutgers to its first ever Big Ten road win with 25-points, six rebounds, four assists, three steals and a game-winner at Bryce Jordan Center against Penn State.
Saturday’s rematch was as different a story as possible.
The junior guard struggled mightily against the Nittany Lions, missing all seven of his shot attempts on the day and finishing with 0 points for the first time in his collegiate career. His frustration mounted when he got pickpocketed by Josh Reaves. After missing a three-pointer on the next offensive possession, he was substituted out.
Sanders didn’t return for another nine minutes, with Souf Mensah and walk-on Jake Dadika playing in his place. According to Pikiell, the long stretch without Sanders had more to do with the success of the second unit than with Sanders’ performance.
“I just went with that group that came out and gave us great energy,” Pikiell said. “We got a lift out of that. I coach by that. He get 29 minutes, that’s what he averages, 30, 30 something odd. Souf and that group gave us great energy and they got us clawing back into the game.”
The lackluster performance comes directly after a 14-point, 6-for-17 shooting effort in a loss to Nebraska on Wednesday.
Thiam also brought the struggles he faced against the Huskers with him to Happy Valley. After missing all seven of his three-point attempts against Nebraska, Thiam failed to connect on his first four from downtown against Penn State. While he hit two late to give himself a team-high 12 points, it was too little, too late.
“I thought he just kept plugging away,” Pikiell said of Thiam. “I told him shots are going to fall. I thought he got some pretty good looks too. He forced a couple but he got some wide-open ones and Issa’s got to take those. As you saw in the Iowa game, he made them. Tonight he didn’t but he stayed the course and he got to the rim a couple times, made a couple post moves so he scored in some different ways that he generally doesn’t do. “
2) Another Wasted Defensive Effort
Rutgers’ best attribute under Steve Pikiell has always been its defense. The second-year head coach instilled a workmans attitude on that end of the floor, where his players play an aggressive brand of man-to-man defense.
Somehow, Pikiell turned it up a notch on Saturday.
The Scarlet Knights appeared to fly on the defensive end of the floor against Penn State. They swarmed the Nittany Lions every time they touched the ball inside the three-point line, with double-teams providing strong ball pressure in an attempt to force the Nittany Lions into mistakes. When Penn State countered with high ball screens, there was immediate help from another Scarlet Knight.
The strategy helped the Scarlet Knights force 16 turnovers, seven of which were steals. More importantly, it kept Penn State well below its season-average of 77 points per game.
Pikiell was content with his team’s defensive effort, but it was another that went to waste thanks to an anemic offensive display.
“They only scored 32 in the second half,” Pikiell said. “The defense has been fine. They average 77 points, we held them to 60 and we threw the ball to them down the stretch four or five times so we could’ve kept them in the 50’s. But our offense has to generate more points for us.”
Along with not scoring enough to supplement a strong defensive effort, Rutgers allowed its offense to defeat its defense through careless turnovers. After a clean first half with just four turnovers, the Scarlet Knights conceded possession 12 times in the final 20 minutes. In the end, Rutgers had 16 turnovers that led directly to 23 Penn State points.
“We threw them the ball a lot,” Pikiell said. “We had some offensive issues. These guys are better shooters and better players than that but sometimes you have a night like this. We’re on the road playing a good team, you can’t afford to. Can’t seem to get the ball to get in the basket.”
Per KenPom, the Scarlet Knights rank 348th in effective field goal percentage — Coppin State, Northwestern State and Missouri Valley State are the only three teams in the nation that stand below them. Overall, the offense ranks 303rd in the nation and dead-last in the Big Ten in efficiency.
Unless Rutgers magically turns into Virginia on the defensive end, it can’t afford to put up 43 points in a game — home or away — if it hopes to win.
3) Eugene Omoruyi Blossoms In New Role, But Rutgers Continues to Miss Mike Williams
It wasn’t his best game as far as the stat sheet goes, but Omoruyi displayed one of his many strong characteristics — versatility. When Mike Williams came down with his ankle injury, Pikiell picked Omoruyi as the substitute for Williams at the three when Rutgers elects to go small.
It’s been so far, so good for Omoruyi, with Saturday serving as another step in his adaptation to his new role. The Canadian put up 9 points on 3-for-4 shooting, looking comfortable on both ends of the floor and making some smart decision in the post.
“He’s adjusting to it and we can do different things with him in there,” Pikiell said. “He always plays hard. We put in him in tough spots sometimes and he has to learn a new position.”
“It’s been great because teams can’t really guard me in different ways,” Omoruyi added. “There’s just not one way of guarding me, I have different ways of affecting the game.”
As good as Omoruyi’s been, he can’t produce for two players.
Williams absence remains a difficult hurdle for the Scarlet Knights to overcome. His energy and ability to add a spark to the offense and hit timely shots would’ve come up big as Penn State started to pull away early in the second half.
“We dearly miss Mike,” Pikiell said. “He was another guy who played multiple positions for us too.”
Williams travelled with the team to Happy Valley, involving himself in the huddle and cheering his team at the end of the bench. Without his crutches, Williams walked around in a boot, but he’s still a long way from returning, Pikiell said. Still, his presence around the team is welcome.
“I love having around the team,” Pikiell said. “He’s a positive guy, he’s tremendous. He’s tremendous so it’s nice to have him back on the bus, it’s nice to have him in practices, but we really need him on the court. I look forward to that day.”
4) Rutgers Missed A Chance To Play To Its Strength
Offensive rebounding is both one of Rutgers strengths and a glaring weakness for Penn State. The Nittany Lions have seen teams dominate them on the offensive glass multiple times this season, and it appeared to be something the Scarlet Knights could take advantage of.
But after 40 minutes, they had just two — one in each half.
“Huge (lost opportunity),” Pikiell said. “I thought they blocked out well but we’re a good offensive rebounding team. We talked about it at halftime, we didn’t have one offensive rebound (in the first half). We had one team offensive rebound, so not one individual guy had one. To their credit, they blocked out but we have to make sure we’re going. That’s another way we can score and get teams in foul trouble. So they obviously did a much better job than us at that.”
Quotes In The Bonus:
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell on his team only getting two offensive rebounds:
“Huge (lost opportunity). I thought they blocked out well but we’re a good offensive rebounding team. We talked about it at halftime, we didn’t have one offensive rebound (in the first half). We had one team offensive rebound, so not one individual guy had one. To their credit, they blocked out but we have to make sure we’re going. That’s another way we can score and get teams in foul trouble. So they obviously did a much better job than us at that.”
Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell on Mamadou Doucoure’s performance (6 points, 4 rebounds, 3 fouls in 21 minutes):
“I loved the way he attacked the rim, even though he missed that dunk. He showed some things but the most important thing was he was on the court. They let him play around the basket and he was able to stay out of foul trouble. He’s a freshman so he’s going to get better and better and the more minutes we can have him on the court, he’s going to get better and that’s what we’re trying to do with him.”