After many very competitive, close losses on the road in the past month, the bottom appeared to fall out for Rutgers on Wednesday night in Happy Valley. Penn State blitzed from the three-point line and defensively forced too many contested, difficult shots from Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights looked a step slow defensively and out of sync on the offensive end in the first half, trailing by 18 points at the break. Once again, RU showed a ton of heart and came all the way back to lead by 2 in the final seconds of the game before losing a heartbreaker to Penn State 65-64.
It was a disaster first half for Rutgers, as Penn State generated way too many open looks from behind the arc and made them pay. A Myles Johnson basket cut the PSU lead to 10-8 just over six minutes into the contest before things spiraled out of control. RU was too slow on closing out on the perimeter and the Nittany Lions made 6 of its first 11 shot attempts from three-point range. They consistently got open looks off of ball reversals in the halfcourt, as five different Penn State players made shots from deep, including Seth Lundy making two. It didn’t matter that PSU’s best three-point shooter, Myreon Jones, was out for a sixth consecutive game.
Offensively, Rutgers was settling for bad shots and unable to get near the rim. They also struggled from three-point range once again, missing all five attempts. They shot 31% from the floor overall and also had a -3 rebounding margin. Penn State shot 50% for the half and had everything working, leading by as many as 21 before heading to the locker room with a commanding 42-24 halftime lead. Izaiah Brockington had a game high 12 points, while Jacob Young had 5 points and 3 assists for Rutgers.
To begin the second half, Rutgers stormed out of the gate with an 11-3 run in the first four minutes after the break. Their energy and defensive intensity was night and day from the first half. Ron Harper Jr. was scoreless before the break, but scored two baskets early to get the Scarlet Knights going.
With Penn State leading 49-37 and fourteen minutes to play, Brockington limped off the court with a left leg injury. A Mike Watkins layup pushed the lead back to 14 points, but the Scarlet Knights responded by reeling off a game changing 15-2 run to cut the Nittany Lions lead at 51-50. Rutgers continued to put pressure on PSU on the defensive end and were able to attack the rim in a way they couldn’t in the first half. Guard play was tremendous, as Jacob Young and Caleb McConnell were aggressive and finishing in traffic.
Defensively, Rutgers was doing a much better job of closing out on the perimeter and Penn State had suddenly missed 8 three-point attempts in a row.
Basketball is a game of runs though and Penn State responded with a mini 4-0 run as Rutgers fell into a two plus minute scoring drought. They trailed 55-50 with 7:44 remaining in the game as PSU was in the bonus.
Out of the timeout, Rutgers suffered a shot clock violation and Pikiell immediately subbed back into the game. Brockington returned as well and soon after made a contested jumper and drew the foul. He missed the free throw, but RU continued to struggle offensively, as they missed its fifth shot in a row.
John Harrar dunked it home and on the next possession made 1 of 2 free throws, as PSU was on a 9-0 run since Rutgers cut the lead to 1 point. Finally, a layup from Jacob Young was the first points for the Scarlet Knights in over 4 minutes. Soon after, Harper Jr. knocked down a huge three to make it 60-55 with five minutes remaining.
Penn State was in the double bonus and Harrar made both shots from the foul line. Soon after, Myles Johnson grabbed a big offensive rebound and finished with a putback heading into the final media timeout.
PSU took a deep three after the break and missed its tenth straight from behind the arc. Rutgers gave it to Young in transition, but Baker traveled after getting the ball deflected off the dribble. After another defensive stop as RU continued to frustrate All-Big Ten player Lamar Stevens, Harper Jr. got hung up after picking up his dribble. However, Akwasi Yeboah, who was scoreless all night, saw an opening, caught the pass and drained a massive three-pointer to make it 62-60 with 2:20 to play. Pikiell used his final timeout to set his team up for the closing final moments.
Yeboah missed a three soon after, but Geo Baker came through with an offensive rebound and converted in traffic at the rim to tie the game with 1:32 to play. Young stole it on a great defensive play and found Yeboah streaking to the rim. It looked like he would dunk it home for the lead, but the ball was deflected at the last minute and it went out of bounds of of him.
Penn State got the ball back and Stevens went to the line and MISSED BOTH. Rutgers went down the floor and Geo Baker, the big play maker, knocked down a huge jumper to take the lead with 40 seconds to play. Rutgers was on a 9-0 run and the game was on the brink.
After missing 10 in a row from behind the arc, Myles Dread made the game winning three-pointer to give Penn State a 65-64 lead. Harrar got away with a moving screen to spring Dread open, but it wasn’t called.
With no timeouts remaining, PSU double teamed Baker, as Yeboah took the final shot, a three that hit the front rim and the clock ran out. Credit head coach Pat Chambers for not letting Baker take the final shot.
It was a stomach punch loss no doubt. After a disheartening performance in the first half, Rutgers played its tails off in the second half. They seemed to deflate the home team with its fight and was so close to pulling off a dramatic comeback victory. Instead, they fell one shot short.
Jacob Young was phenomenal in this game and the catalyst for the comeback. He had a team high 13 points on 5 of 9 shooting, 5 assists, 3 steals and 0 turnovers. His ability to create scoring chances off the dribble and disrupting Penn State on the defensive end was impressive. When he has his A game, Rutgers is a more dangerous team.
Part of the reason Rutgers fell short is that no one else scored in double digits. Hard to win on the road, let alone against a nationally ranked team, with only one player scoring in double figures. There was some balance, as Harper Jr. had 9 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 steals, while Geo Baker (4 rebounds, 2 assists), Myles Johnson (11 rebounds), and Caleb McConnell (2 rebounds, 2 steals) all had 8 points. Montez Mathis had 7 points and played well defensively. However, the flat performance in the first half once again put this team in too big of a hole to climb out of for good, despite taking the lead in the final minute.
They did a great job once again on Lamar Stevens, who had just 9 points on 4 of 13 shooting. Brockington had a game high 16 points and the aptly named Myles Dread scored 11, including the dagger to win the game.
Rutgers shot 42% in the game and held Penn State to 39%, but they finished 7 of 22 from three for 32%, while RU was only 4 of 15 for 27%. Both teams struggled from the line, as Rutgers was 6 of 11 for 55% and PSU was 14 of 22 for 64%. Although Rutgers was -1 on the glass, including offensively, they held a 15-9 edge in second chance points and dominated with a 36-22 advantage in points in the paint. Even so, they fell short of what would have been a massive road win.
Up next, Rutgers has a much needed break and doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, March 3rd in the final home game of the season. It will be a major task, as first place Maryland comes to the RAC for senior night. This team continues to prove they have a ton of fight in them and play for each other. At 18-11 and 9-9 in Big Ten play, they have certainly hit a rough patch in facing the most difficult four game stretch any team in the country has faced. However, there is still opportunities to get to 20 wins and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. It was a heartbreaking loss, but this team isn’t done yet.