Losing is something that is not new to this Penn State basketball program. Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions couldn’t afford lose today, but of course they still did. As Rasir Bolton’s step-back, corner three sailed over the basket, Penn State dropped to 7-14, 0-9 after a 64-60 home loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Saturday's game against Rutgers was the annual THON game, where all of the single-game student ticket money will be donated straight to the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. Being the THON game on a Saturday afternoon, the Bryce Jordan Center was as busy as we’ve seen it all year, with an official attendance of 13,366 fans. With the anticipation of the first conference win of the season, there was a lot of pre-game energy in the BJC.
That excitement did not continue through the first half, however, as the offense stalled out of the gates. Rutgers outrebounded the Nittany Lions by five in the first 20 minutes, with the difference coming on the offensive boards as the Scarlet Knights totaled nine offensive rebounds to the Lions' four. Geo Baker's quickness and athleticism caused problems for Penn State's backcourt defenders. Josh Reaves' auto-benching after two early fouls didn't help PSU's efforts either. The sophomore guard led Rutgers at the half with 11 points on 5-10 shooting.
Myles Dread’s eight first-half points were the most by any Nittany Lion in the first frame. His best sequence of the half occurred when he picked Peter Kiss’s pocket and used a euro-step to get all the way to the rim where he finished with a finger roll. Shortly after, Lamar Stevens swatted Eugene Omoruyi and got the ball up to Dread who hit a pull up three-pointer. His five straight points reduced a six-point closed the deficit to one when the Knights were threatening to pull away.
The start of the second half could not have been uglier for both teams. Penn State’s nine first-half turnovers had to be a topic of discussion for the Nittany Lions at the half as it was a large reason why they trailed. Yet they would go on to turn the ball over four more times in the first three minutes of the second half. As we have seen all year, the defense is the strength of this Nittany Lion ball club. With the offense struggling to even maintain possession of the ball, the defense saved the day. In a stretch where Penn State could have let the game get away, the defense held the Scarlet Knight offense to a 1-8 start to the second half.
Penn State finally regained the lead 33-32 for the first time since early in the first half when Reaves threw down a breakaway dunk and ignited the home crowd. After a rather slow start to the game, Stevens looked phenomenal coming out of the intermission, hitting on his first five shots of the half. It finally seems like Stevens has his jump shot back, and it was nice to see him confidently hitting the pull-up jump shots that we’ve seen him make so many times. Stevens finished the day with 21 points on 7-16 shooting.
The Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights played much of the second half going back and forth. With 1:05 left it seemed Penn State got the stop it desperately needed when the refs signaled a shot clock violation. But after review it was determined that Rasir Bolton gained possession on the floor before the shot clock expired, and a Scarlet Knight got his hands on the ball once possession was gained, restarting the shot clock for PSU and leading to a jump ball. The possession arrow was pointing to the team from New Jersey, and a fresh 30 seconds got added to the shot clock. Rutgers held the ball until single digits were left on the shot clock, and Ron Harper Jr. forced up a tough shot. The shot missed, but a foul on John Harrar on the put-back sent Omoruyi to the line. He converted the pair and made two more of his free throw attempts in the game’s final minutes. After some made free throws by Bolton on the other end, it was Geo Baker at the line with 11 seconds left up 62-60 with a chance to ice the game. Baker went 1-2, giving Penn State a shot to tie the game, but Bolton's corner look did not go.
This game was there for the taking, but as we have seen all season long this team just cannot make a big shot when it matters most. In classic fashion, the Nittany Lions got outscored by six points in the final four minutes and didn't make a field goal over the last 2:33. Dread and Bolton each had 11 but on a combined 7-23 shooting. Rutgers' 15 second chance points were ultimately the difference on the evening.
“We’re this close.” These are words that fans have heard for years from head coach Pat Chambers, and words that PSU hoops fans must be so tired of hearing. There are absolutely no moral victories in this conference, especially against Rutgers. Being close is not an excuse anymore; eventually, this team needs to get over the hump to justify Chambers keeping his job for much longer.
Penn State has another home game on Thursday, January 31st when Purdue comes into town. The 13-6 (6-2) Boilermakers team will be hungry for a win in a conference where every game is vital, and the Nittany Lions will be doing everything in their will to avoid falling to 0-10 in conference play.