Rutgers went to Happy Valley and left with a 64-60 victory, as well as plenty of smiles as the program won back to back regular season games for the first time since joining the Big Ten. They struggled offensively at times, but this team showed maturity and a togetherness in leading most of the way and pulling it out in the end. Defensively they were strong all night and it helped Rutgers win just its second road game out of 40 tries in Big Ten play, both now coming against Penn State. It was another step forward for Rutgers under head coach Steve Pikiell.
First Half Summary
After leading 4-2, went 1 for 7 from field and Pikiell called a timeout after a 6-0 PSU run. It was a timely one, as Rutgers caught its breath and started to go to work on both ends of the floor. Eugene Omoruyi drew two charges and should have been credited for a third, but the ref made a bad call. However, Montez Mathis drove to the rim for a basket and both he and Geo Baker made three-pointers. At the under-12 media timeout, Rutgers led Penn State 12-11 with Omoruyi headed to the line. He made one of two and the Scarlet Knights were on a 9-3 run.
Penn State hit a three to take the lead but fell in a four-plus minute scoring drought. Another Mathis three put Rutgers up 18-14. Soon after, Rutgers made back to back baskets from Omoruyi and a pull up mid-range jumper from Kiss that forced a Penn State timeout, who were trailing 22-16 with 5:39 remaining in the opening frame. It was back and forth the rest of the way as Rutgers led 30-26 at the break after a Myles Johnson putback off a Baker miss.
Despite the lead, Rutgers had missed some close shots near the rim and finished 36% from the floor in the half. They also committed 6 turnovers. However, they were attacking the rim and playing smart on offense, while digging in on the defensive end. Penn State also shot just 36% from the floor and committed 9 turnovers. Rutgers held a +5 offensive rebounding margin which led to a 10-0 advantage with second chance points. They also held a +8 edge with points in the paint.
Baker had 11 points and Mathis with 8 at the half, as no other Rutgers player had more than one basket. For Penn State, Josh Reeves had struggled with 2 fouls early and only had 3 points at the break. Myles Dread led the Nittany Lions with 8 points and Lamar Stevens had 5.
Second Half Summary
Out of intermission, Rutgers started the half with a quick basket from Mathis and then proceeded to miss its next 9 shots from the field. Finally, a Shaq Carter three point play the hard way and a Kiss triple on the next possession got things going. Despite the shooting struggles, Rutgers was only down 41-40 at the media timeout with 11:55 to play. Caleb McConnell had two free throw attempts out of the timeout and made one of two to tie it. Soon after, McConnell made a great high arcing entry pass to Omoruyi, who banked it for two to tie it at 43. The teams traded another pair of buckets, with Baker hitting a tough mid-range jumper. The game was 45-45 at the midway point of the second half.
Baker found McConnell soon after open in the corner and the freshman knocked it down to push Rutgers back into the lead. However, he headed to the bench with 4 fouls with 8 minutes to play. Penn State was stuck in over a four minute scoreless stretch as Rutgers had made 5 of its last 7 field goals. Ron Harper Jr. had been quiet with three first half fouls but his a massive three-pointer to push the lead to 5 points with 6:38 to play.
A key play came with Rutgers up three and Omoruyi missed a close shot near the rim and fouled Stevens going for the rebound. Stevens made both to cut it to a 1 point game and then Rutgers was called for a 10 second violation. Penn State still hadn’t made a field goal in over five minutes, but Omoruyi picked up his fourth foul with 4:40 to play. Stevens made 1 of 2 from the line and the game was tied at 51.
Both teams were in the bonus and it would come down to free throws. Baker made 3 of 4 to put Rutgers up 54-53 with just over 4 minutes left in the game. On the next possession and the shot clock winding down, Baker knocked down a huge three-pointer at the top of arc which forced a Penn State timeout with 3:17 to play.
Lamar Stevens was dominating for Penn State in the second half and after a Watkins putback the lead was down to 1 with 2:15 remaining. Pikiell wisely called a timeout. Rutgers got a good shot with Baker driving but he missed. Penn State then called a timeout with the ball and down 1. They gave it to Stevens with Omoruyi on him with four fouls, but held his ground and grabbed the rebound. On the next Rutgers possession, McConnell couldn’t get a shot off as the clock was expiring. However, Myles Johnson was able to tie up the loose ball and Rutgers maintained possession. It was a huge call in the game.
Baker held the ball at the top with the new shot clock running down. Penn State double teamed him, he passed to Harper Jr. who missed, but the captain was there again. Omoruyi grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws as Rutegrs led 60-57 with 36 second to play. Stevens then worked it to the rim down the other end and drew the foul. He made the first and missed the second. Rutgers led by 2 with 20 second remaining and Omoruyi headed to the line. He made both and Rutgers led by 4 with 17 seconds to play. Mathis fouled Bolton on the next possession and he made both shots to put the score at 62-60 with 13 seconds remaining. McConnell couldn’t find Baker or Mathis on the inbounds play and wisely called a timeout.
Pikiell showed his worth as a coach by adjusting on the next attempt, having Baker start with the ball on the inbounds who then passed to Harper Jr. on the baseline who quickly found Baker inbounds and drew the foul. It was a masterclass in coaching from Pikiell in what was the biggest play of the game. Baker made 1 of 2 as Penn State had a chance to tie. Bolton got a shot off from behind the arc but missed. Mathis grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made one to ice it and Rutgers won 64-60!
The Game Changed When
Rutgers was trailing 37-34 and mired in a 1 of 10 shooting slump to start the second half. Solid defense from Rutgers kept them in it and then a quick six point strike from Carter and Kiss got this team back in the game.
It Was Over When
Mathis grabbed the rebound in traffic with less than a second left in the game and Rutgers up 3 points. He then made one of two free throw attempts to seal the victory.
For Penn State, Lamar Stevens is their best player and he showed it in the second half. He led all scorers with 21 points on 7 of 16 shooting and 8 rebounds. Dread and Bolton added 11 points apiece for the Nittany Lions.
For Rutgers, Geo Baker showed up in a big way. His leadership in keeping the younger players together down the stretch, along with making some big shots ensured a Rutgers victory. He led the way with 20 points on 7 of 15 shooting, dished out 3 assists and only committed 1 turnover.
The Scarlet Knights outrebounded its fourth Big Ten opponent this season, holding a +2 edge. They held a 15-8 advantage on second chance points.
While both teams only shot 35% from the field, Rutgers made 7 of 16 shots from three-point range (44%). They also came up big from the free throw line, making 15 of 21 attempts for 71%.
Other Notable Contributions
Omoruyi was only 2 of 9 from the field, but he played like a warrior and continues to be the heart and soul of the team. He gutted out 11 points in making 7 of 8 from the free throw line, grabbed 4 rebounds, took 2 charges and defended Stevens so well on a possession PSU could have taken the lead in the last minute with four fouls.
Mathis struggled with a 4 of 15 shooting night as Josh Reaves played great defense on him. While not a factor much of the second half, his rebound and free throw were huge as well and showed how important he is even when he isn’t scoring much. He finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds.
Shaq Carter scored just 3 points but led the team with 7 rebounds.
What We Learned
This team wanted this game badly and it showed. It wasn’t pretty, but Rutgers proved once again they can win Big Ten games with great defense and an attacking mindset on offense. Getting to the line 21 times was huge and they took advantage. When Rutgers needed shots to fall, they made it happen. Despite shooting 35% they won on the road which shows how gutty this win was.
They are now 6-0 this season when Baker scores 16 or more points. The heart of this team is big and they picked up a victory that puts them in a four way tie for ninth place in the Big Ten. They also now have a three game advantage over last place Penn State and will face them again in MArch at the RAC on senior night. This was the best week for Rutgers under Steve Pikiell with back to back wins and have a legitimate chance to finish out of the bottom four in the conference. They are proving to have the ability to win ugly and it will give them a chance to produce more wins than they have ever had in Big Ten play.
Rutgers returns home to face a struggling Indiana team who are on a six game losing streak Wednesday night at the RAC. The last time these two programs met, Rutgers came back from a 16 point deficit to stun the Hoosiers in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament last March at the Garden. They’ll have a major opportunity to pass them in the standings with a win on Wednesday and should bring plenty of confidence into the game.
For Dave White’s four thoughts click here.