It was nights like Tuesday’s game that define good teams and Rutgers came through in a major way. Trailing by 10 points midway through the first half after missing all but one of its first 15 shots in the game, the Scarlet Knights stayed true to its core with strong defensive play and rebounding. Ron Harper Jr. stepped up when the team needed him most and with key contributions from every player on the court, Rutgers defeated Penn State to complete its best start in over 4 decades and sit near the top of the Big Ten standings at 3-1.
The absence of captain Geo Baker was painfully obvious in the first half and in particular, the first ten minutes of the game. Penn State did a great job defensively clogging up passing lanes and Rutgers lacked ball movement, opting to beat defenders off the dribble. They turned it over four times in the first two minutes of the game without getting a shot off. Once they were able to shoot, they started the game just 1 of 15 from the floor and had seven turnovers at the midway point of the half. However, Penn State only led 14-6 due to solid defense from Rutgers.
Trailing 18-12 at seven minute mark in the opening frame, Penn State star Lamar Stevens was called for his second foul and headed to the bench scoreless in the game. PSU was still able to extend the lead after a Izaiah Brockington runner that made it 20-12 with 5:33 left. Pikiell was furious, calling a timeout and intentionally sitting on the bench away from the team as assistant Brandin Knight commanded the huddle.
The timeout didn’t work right away, as Rutgers was in danger of the game slipping away after another Watkins bucket, making it 24-14 with less than 5 minutes left in the half. The PSU big man dominated the action in the opening frame, finishing with 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting. However, the Scarlet Knights finally responded, as Myles Johnson scored near the rim and on a defensive stop, Caleb McConnell found Ron Harper Jr. with a long pass to score a quick bucket in traffic. PSU called a timeout up 6 with 4 minutes to play in the opening frame.
Jacob Young stepped up, making 4 of 5 free throws and made a great move for a runner late in the half. Unfortunately, he had two mental breakdowns defensively that cost Rutgers. Penn State’s Brockington was fouled with two seconds left in the half, made both free throws and gave the visitors a 33-28 lead at the break. Still, it could have been much worse for the Scarlet Knights who shot just 31% from the floor despite making 5 of its last 7 shots in the half. PSU also held a +6 rebounding margin. However, Rutgers did play good defense on everyone but Watkins, as the rest of the Nittany Lions shot just 5 of 25 from the floor in the half.
Rutgers desperately needed a good start after the break to build their confidence and get the RAC faithful involved in the game. They did just that, as they started the second half on a 7-0 run to take a 35-33 lead less than three minutes into the action. PSU regrouped after a timeout and took the lead on a mini 4-0 run, before Mulcahy made a great pass inside to Johnson, who tied the game at 37. Rutgers was hustling and crashing the boards, holding a 9-3 edge in the second half less than five minutes in.
Foul trouble was looming for both sides, as Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler had 3 for PSU, while Harper Jr. headed to the bench for Rutgers with 3 fouls after leading the team with 10 points.
Rutgers led 40-37 and Yeboah drove baseline for a shot near the rim, but it spiraled out and Lamar Stevens answered on the other end, making that a key sequence in what was a 1 point game with 13 minutes to play.
Young had another positive stretch, as he made two big baskets over the course of a couple minutes to extend the lead to 45-39 with 11 minutes remaining. Stevens demanded the ball on the other end and scored while drawing a foul from Mulcahy, but he missed the free throw.
After a couple missed three’s by Rutgers and a couple turnovers by Penn State, Young went 1 on 2 in transition and scored the contested layup to put the Scarlet Knights up 47-41 at the midway point of the second half. However, Myreon Jones stepped up for PSU and scored 10 points including two three-pointers on four consecutive possessions to give the visitors a 51-49 lead while Young was forcing it too much on the offensive end and headed to the bench.
Montez Mathis, who was 0 of 6 from the floor, knocked down a monster three on an assist from Mulcahy to give Rutgers a 1 point lead with 7:10 left in the game. It was officially crunch time and as the timeout was ending, Geo Baker was on the floor talking to his teammates and encouraging them to finish strong. On the first offensive possession, McConnell rebounded his own miss and made a great pass to Mathis who scored in traffic at the rim.
After a Stevens jumper, Mathis moved well without the ball and cut to the rim along the baseline, missed his initial shot but scored on his own putback. Rutgers got a defensive stop on the next possession for PSU that led to Pikiell wisely calling a timeout with a 56-53 lead and six minutes left to play.
Stevens was called for his third foul that put Rutgers into the bonus and Harper Jr. converted both free throws to extend the lead to five points. Soon after, he drew a foul on Watkins and he knocked down both shots from the charity stripe again, giving Rutgers 60-54 lead with 3:50 left in the game. PSU had two opportunities to score on their next possession, but they couldn’t convert and Stevens was called for his fourth foul of the game. Harper Jr. went back to the line and with ice in his veins, made both and was 10 of 10 in the game. The RAC was going wild with Rutgers up 8 and just 3:24 to play behind an 8-1 run. Penn State hadn’t made a field goal in over 3 minutes.
The next trip Pikiell called an iso play for Harper Jr, who drove to the basket and made a circus shot off the glass for a layup. Young stole it from Penn State and Harper Jr. drew a foul on Watkins. He made both yet again and all of a sudden Rutgers led 66-54 with over 2 minutes to play. Harper Jr. then blocked a shot and the game was all but over, completely a stunning turnaround. PSU didn’t make a field goal for over 5 minute period down the stretch, as Rutgers won in convincing fashion 72-61.
Ron Harper Jr. played like the star Rutgers believes he can become and finished with a game high 22 points on 5 of 10 shooting, as well as 5 rebounds and 2 blocks. His poise from the free throw line was outstanding and resulted in a perfect 12 of 12 from the charity stripe. He took over the game in the second half and was the go to player Rutgers desperately needed.
Jacob Young forced the action at times, but had some big moments in the game when Rutgers desperately needed points. He finished with 13 points on 4 of 8 shooting, 4 of 5 from the line, grabbed 4 rebounds and swiped 2 steals. His energy and ability to penetrate in traffic were huge in this game.
Myles Johnson struggled early and had trouble defending Watkins in the first half, but finished with a solid effort of 10 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks. His defense on Watkins was much better in the second half and held him without a field goal, which was a major key in the victory.
While Caleb McConnell struggled shooting, making just 1 of 8 attempts and not scoring until the game was no longer in doubt, he played solid defense and hustled all over the court in the second half. He had a team high 8 rebounds and dished out 4 assists.
Paul Mulcahy continues to get more comfortable with every game and his passing was an asset once again. He dished out 5 assists and had 0 turnovers, while adding 4 rebounds, 2 steals and a block. His future is so bright.
Montez Mathis finished with 8 points and 5 rebounds, having several key moments and even Shaq Carter provided quality minutes off the bench, finishing with 6 points and 3 points.
Akwasi Yeboah didn’t have a great night offensively (3 of 10, 7 points), but his defense was fantastic.
PSU star Lamar Stevens had just 12 points on 4 of 10 shooting. Myreon Jones led Penn State with 21 points.
As a team, Rutgers shot 41% overall while holding Penn State to just 36% from the floor and just 6 of 26 for 23% from three-point range. RU dominated the interior in the second half, holding a 26-6 advantage with points in the paint and were +13 on the boards. They also beat PSU at their own game, holding an 11-4 edge in fast break points in the second half. For the game, Rutgers finished +7 on the boards, +22 with points in the paint and a +3 turnover margin. After committing 7 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of the game, Rutgers had just 2 more most of the game until committing a couple in the closing minute. Also, behind Harper Jr.’s big night from the line, Rutgers 22 of 29 for 75.9% from the charity strip.
What an effort from this team. It was a gutty performance on a night they struggled to get much going against a very good defensive team. However, Rutgers was the better team defensively, holding Penn State 20 points below its scoring average. Pikiell got contributions from all 8 players that saw action and the second half this team poured it on, outscoring PSU 44-28. They played much smarter offensively down the stretch and put the ball in the hands of Harper Jr. as much as possible. They actually outscored the Nittany Lions 58-37 after trailing 24-14 in the first half. An impressive victory and the second ranked win of the season for this team.
Up next, Rutgers head on the road to face a talented Illinois (10-5; 2-2) this Saturday at 12:00 p.m. ET. Incredibly, RU will take with it the program’s best start since the 1975-1976 season with a 12-3 record and incredible 3-1 start to Big Ten play. They are officially the story of the conference in the early going and currently on a clear path to the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 1991. There are still a lot of games left to play and the return of Geo Baker is needed sooner rather than later, despite going 2-0 so far without him. However, Rutgers is rolling on a six game winning streak and this team continues to get better each game. Steve Pikiell isn’t just pounding nails, he is carving out a masterpiece coaching job this season.