The Rutgers men's basketball team got the short end of the stick in a thrilling matchup at Penn State last night. The Scarlet Knights (18-11, 9-9) lost 65-64 to the No. 16 Nittany Lions (21-7, 11-6) in a game that came down to the last shot.
After coming back from a 21-point deficit in the second half, junior guard Geo Baker hit a jumper to give Rutgers a 64-62 lead with 42 seconds left. The lead was short-lived though, as Myles Dread made a dagger three for Penn State on the next possession.
With 28 seconds left, the Knights had one last chance to complete an improbable road comeback and possibly punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. With no timeouts left, Rutgers inbounded the ball immediately. Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. called for an iso as he dribbled the ball up the court.
The team's leading scorer on the season couldn't quite get it done this time. He got trapped by the energetic Nittany Lions defense and kicked it out to graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah. Yeboah then took a contested three as time ran out. Unfortunately for the Knights, the shot didn't fall, and the miracle comeback wasn't meant to be.
The game was a tale of two halves. It followed a familiar script for Rutgers road games this season, as the team from the Banks fell behind early on. It trailed 42-24 at halftime after making just 31 percent of its field goals. It was gut-check time for the Knights at the break, as they knew that a blowout loss would be a crippling blow to their Tournament resume.
Just as it seems to do in every road game, Rutgers stepped it up in the second half. It came out of halftime going on an 11-3 run, with a three-pointer by true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy cutting the deficit to 49-40. The change in energy at the Bryce Jordan Center was apparent as the Knights made it clear that they wouldn't go down lightly.
Rutgers went on a 15-2 run shortly after, making it a one-point game and asserting itself as the gritty team Knights fans have witnessed this season. Whether it could finally complete a road comeback remained to be seen, but it certainly applied enough pressure to make it conceivable.
Penn State then scored 9 straight points, reminding everyone why it is a top team in the Big Ten. Even though the Nittany Lions were having a lackluster second half, they weren't going to lay down and let Rutgers walk all over them.
The Knights roared back with a 12-2 run to tie the game, culminating in the aforementioned jump shot by Baker. From there, the rest was history.
"You are going to have to make plays at that time in the game. They went and jumped (Baker). I thought (Yeboah) had a good look at it," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "I didn't like the defensive stop right before it, that's what cost us the game you have to get out and contest. He (Dread) can shoot the ball. And he hadn't made many threes so give him credit, he made a big play at the end. You get a chance to counter with it. I love (Yeboah), he said 'coach I was teeing that up', and I like that confidence."
Penn State knew that Rutgers usually turns to Baker for the last shot. Since the Knights didn't have a timeout, Pikiell couldn't draw up a play on the sideline to get the ball to the team co-captain. The Nittany Lions denied him the ball, and Rutgers had to resort to secondary and tertiary options.
With this loss, the Knights are now just 1-10 in away and neutral games this year. This is the biggest blemish on their Tournament resume and is certainly cause for alarm at this point in the season. They have to win at least one of their two remaining regular season games to feel safe about their chances to qualify. Their next chance to end the losing streak comes on Tuesday, when they host No. 9 Maryland in their home finale at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"We just got down a lot," Pikiell said. "I didn't like our energy. We had a great practice too yesterday. We just didn't get off to a good start, and they played with tremendous energy in the first half. You can't spot them points like that on the road. To be 21 points down and come back to take the lead is unbelievable. This team had great energy to get back into the game, but you have to play better than that against a ranked team with really good players."
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