PISCATAWAY — It was the beginning of a new year on Sunday. It also appeared to be another day in the right direction, continuing the upward trend the Rutgers men’s basketball team was on in the latter half of 2016.
With Penn State, a young team looking to climb up the ranks of the Big Ten, visiting the Rutgers Athletic Center, it was the first real chance for the Scarlet Knights to see where they measure with teams in a similar spot, as well as how far they’ve come from a truly disastrous campaign a year ago.
For the first 10 minutes, it seemed the Knights left the demons of their first two seasons in the Big Ten behind in 2016. It looked like a transformed Rutgers team, different from the one which suffered blowout after blowout, both on and off the court, a year ago.
In front of 6,079 fans that packed the RAC, with perhaps the best atmosphere its seen in a Big Ten conference game, they held the Nittany Lions without a field goal for the first seven minutes and 10 seconds, forcing them to miss their first 10 attempts.
And while defense couldn’t play that well for 40 minutes, it did maintain the usual level it played at this season, holding Penn State 15 points below its season average.
But the struggles Rutgers was able to push past in non-conference schedule — difficulties in shooting the ball and lack of size in the post — came back to bite them.
Though they held the Nittany Lions to 36 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers, the Knights shot just 29 percent and committing 17 turnovers themselves as they fell 60-47 in their third consecutive loss and first at home.
“Turning the ball over has been a problem in all of these games. I really think it's a big part of this thing,” Pikiell said. “We're a good rebounding team, but if you turn it over, you have no opportunities ... Our offense wouldn't allow us to hand around in this game. You do have to make shots ... We have to do a better job in that area."
The visitors led at the half following the back-and-forth affair the first half had become after the initial defensive dominance of the home side. An alley-oop pass from Shep Garner to Julian Moore caused the fifth and final lead change of the day as Penn State used a 10-0 run to take a 27-20 with two minutes remaining in the first half.
Garner, the Nittany Lions' (9-6, 1-1) leading scorer, didn’t start for the first time all season. Neither did their leading blocker and rim protector Mike Watkins. The pair were two of “six or seven” players who caught a stomach bug midway through the week.
Stepping up in their place was Moore, who had another alley-oop connection with Garner in the second half, and Payton Banks, who led the Knights with 20 points.
“We took a step today as a program,” said Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers. “Our culture and what these kids are all about really shined through, because we could have easily had every excuse in the book to mail it in and pack it in, ‘Well I was sick, he was sick’ – we didn’t do that. We went out and competed. It was a really good road win for us.”
Rutgers (11-4, 0-2) scored the last three points of the first half and two of the second to reduce Penn State’s lead to two. That would be the closest to a comeback the home side would come, as the Nittany Lions ripped through a 20-2 run to take an 18-point lead, their largest of the afternoon. The Knights wouldn’t come within single-digits for the remainder of the game.
Just two Knights managed to reach double-figures.
Mike Williams scored the Knights first five points and dug them out of their first deficit with another quick five points to give them a 16-12 lead at the under-8 media timeout in the first half. But the junior guard would slowly fall out of the frame, with just five of his team-high 16 points coming in the second half, including his third and final three-pointer coming with 1:23 remaining and his team down 16.
Williams took half of the Knights 20 shots from beyond-the-arc, converting the three they made.
“We had a lot of open looks,” Williams said. “Pretty much all the shots I took, some of the shots (junior guard) Nigel (Johnson) took, some of the shots (sophomore guard) Corey (Sanders) took was wide-open. We just got to hit them.”
Much of Rutgers success in non-conference play came from its ability to bully teams on the boards and score on second-chance opportunities. Penn State recognized this and clogged the paint, forcing the Knights to get their points from the perimeter and mid-range shooting.
The plan worked.
Though it managed to just barely win the rebounding battle against the Nittany Lions (43-42), Rutgers scored just 9 of their points on second opportunities and 30 inside the paint, leading to a season-low point total.
“They were just clogging the lane,” said senior center C.J. Gettys. “We haven’t been a great shooting team all year so we kind of were playing into their hands. They were willing to let us shoot. They were closing out on long close outs and forcing us to miss and kind of just limiting our shots in the paint and I think they did that well.”
In 13 non-conference games, the Knights lost two games away from home by a combined 23 points. They’ve matched that loss total two games into Big Ten play, dropping their first game at home and the most winnable — on paper, at least — in the process.
The first bout of adversity Rutgers is facing doesn’t quite warrant hitting the panic button, regardless of it happening to a program that’s seen losing streaks of 15 and 17 games over the last two seasons.
With a conference schedule that only gets tougher from here, there is a lot of work ahead for Pikiell and company. But rather than looking at the top of the mountain, he prefers his players to look at the next stone on the climb up it.
"I just try to win the next game,” Pikiell said. “This group here has been tough and we've had some tough practices. Nobody said this was going to be easy. We play in the best league in the country. We have a good group of guys. ... You have to play good basketball. We certainly didn't today on the offense of end, but we'll keep working at it."