College Basketball – Rutgers Continues Free-Fall with Loss at Penn State
For college basketball enthusiasts introduced to the Rutgers Men's Basketball team when the Scarlet Knights were a ranked upstart in December, the team that took the floor at Penn State Thursday night and suffered its fifth straight loss looked nearly unrecognizable outside of the red jerseys.
For longtime Rutgers Basketball enthusiasts, they are starting to looking all too familiar.
Facing a team playing under an interim head coach that had yet to win a Big Ten Conference game before Thursday night, Rutgers never led and when the offense did come to life in the final 10 minutes, the defense could not stop the Nittany Lions from answering.
When time finally ran out on a late comeback effort, Penn State had dealt Rutgers a 75-67 setback - the fifth straight and most alarming defeat in Rutgers's longest losing streak since a seven-game slide from Jan. 21 to Feb. 10 in 2018.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has been consistent about his emphasis on defense and rebounding - complimenting his team when they performed well in losses to Iowa and Wisconsin and criticizing efforts vs. Michigan State and Ohio State. On Thursday, while he asserted his team will play better, he did not have as many good things to say about its latest performance.
"You're going to be frustrated when you don't make shots and you don't play the way that you'd like," Pikiell said. "That's expected. We haven't played well. That's my job to change it. We got guys in there at the end of the game, they played with great energy. They clawed back in it there. They didn't quit. You're not going to be frustrated when you're winning. When hard times hit, that's when you see what your team is made of."
He also acknowledged the talk of the losing streak and the potential to fall out of the NCAA Tournament picture is probably entering their consciousness, as much as he has implored them to block out such narratives.
"They have their phones in their hands all the time so when people are talking about it, I'm sure they are hearing it," Pikiell said.
It is true that by the end of the game, some of the numbers for Rutgers were somewhat encouraging. A 44-percent shooting performance from the field and 41-percent effort from beyond the three-point arc were closer to their numbers during the 7-1 start than they have been during the last three games of the losing streak - losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Ron Harper Jr. finally rediscovered his scoring prowess with 14 of his team-high 18 points in the second half and a flurry of baskets in the final eight minutes to pull Rutgers as close as four points in the final four minutes.
Harper (7-for-15), Myles Johnson (7-for-9, 14 points), Geo Baker (3-for-6, eight points) and Paul Mulcahy (2-for-2, six points) all had shooting days ranging from respectable to very good. Johnson also added seven rebounds and two blocks while Mulcahy had four rebounds, five assists and no turnovers.
Mulcahy also ignited the comeback from an 18-point second-half deficit with the second of his two three-pointers and a diving, behind-the-back pass to set Montez Mathis up for a dunk at 8:39 to play that cut Penn State's lead to single digits, 54-45, for the first time since the 7:36 mark of the first half.
Without a stretch in which Rutgers - led by Harper and Geo Baker - made 9-of-10 shots from the field, however, those shooting numbers would have remained as wretched as they had been for the prior three games.
Mathis again struggled to a 3-for-12 game from the floor and 2-for-4 at the free-throw line. Jacob Young - a bright spot during much of the Rutgers losing streak - went 3-for-8 from the field with three missed layups and four turnovers and was on the bench for the final 10:07 of the game.
Getting critical stops also eluded Rutgers, with John Harrar, Myreon Jones, Seth Lundy, Trent Buttrick and Izaiah Brockington all coming up with critical baskets or free throws for Penn State in the final four minutes.
Harrar and Lundy were especially productive, with Lundy posting a double-double at 16 points and 10 rebounds and Harrar going for eight and 11 with 4-for-5 shooting from the field. The two Nittany Lions standouts combined for seven of the 12 offensive rebounds by Penn State, which dominated Rutgers on the glass, 40-27.
Brockington and Jones each scored 17 points to lead Penn State, although Rutgers did manage to hold both guards - as well as Lundy - to below 50 percent shooting.
While the Scarlet Knights' free-throw shooting wasn't as objectionable as it has been during the first four games of the losing streak (17-for-46, 37 percent), they still shot just 6-for-11 and attempted 13 fewer foul shots than Penn State.
Three weeks ago, Rutgers had internal and external expectations to contend for the Big Ten regular-season title. Now, with Indiana awaiting the Scarlet Knights for a date at Assembly Hall on Sunday, Rutgers is spiraling toward what could be a 30th straight season without an NCAA Tournament appearance if things don't drastically turn around for Pikiell and Co.
"We're trying to beat Indiana, so you guys can talk about all those things and do all that stuff. I don't spend a lot of time on that," Pikiell said of the team's fall toward the bubble of NCAA Tournament consideration. "If you deserve to go to the tournament, you will. You have to win basketball games in a league like this and if you don't, you won't."