Wheels come off for depleted Rutgers in 70-58 home loss to Penn State
For the first time of the afternoon, the Rutgers men's basketball team looked in command.
With less than 15 minutes to play, the rag-tag squad left over on the floor for the Scarlet Knights took the lead for the first time in the game after a pair of free throws from Jonathan Laurent gave them a 35-33 advantage over Penn State.
But the feeling dissipated as quick as it surfaced.
The Nittany Lions swiftly stormed their way back to retake the lead before pushing it to double digits, running away with a 70-58 decision to bury the Knights in a second-half surge on Saturday in front of 5,307 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"I just thought, even if we didn't get a stop, score ... nobody wins 0-0. Somebody's gotta outscore the other guy," said head coach Eddie Jordan. "We just have to ... put together a stream of scoring possessions together. And that way, the defense gets jacked-up more you play harder, you got juice and you can stop, stop, stop."
But the third-year coach's team couldn't live up to that outlook.
With its 14th straight loss of the season in Big Ten play — and 29 losses stemming from the last conference win over 13 months ago — Rutgers (6-21, 0-14) remains in a rut as the only program without a victory in the 14-team league.
Laurent was one of the lone bright spots for the Knights, notching his second straight double-double for the third of his young career after a team-high 19 points on 6-for-10 shooting and a game-high 15 rebounds to pace a nine-man rotation of seven scholarship players and two walk-ons.
The freshman forward said he felt the need to step up as his roommate, freshman guard Corey Sanders, served the second of his four-game, two-week suspension.
"They just want me to be aggressive," Laurent said. "Me and Corey talk all the time and just, I always wanted to be aggressive. It's just, now that he's not here, I feel like I have to step up and take a little bit of a bigger role now."
The Orlando, Florida, native did his part, but couldn't do it all on his own.
Rutgers initially showed signs of life in the first half, entering the locker room on a 14-5 run over the final seven minutes to cut the deficit to 28-22 after it trailed by as many as 15 points.
The Knights kept slicing their way into the Nittany Lions' lead as the second half began, using a strong opening spurt to tie the low-scoring affair at 31 apiece with 15:55 remaining before eventually claiming the lead under a minute later.
Then PSU (14-13, 5-9) woke up.
After Rutgers' lead stood at 37-35, Penn State ripped off a 24-7 run with 7:19 to play. Brandon Taylor, the Nittany Lions' leading scorer on the season, came to life for a double-double with a 17-point, 14-rebound clip to complement Shep Garner's game-high 20 points.
And as PSU fired away from 3-point land to convert on 9-for-22 shooting, equaling to a 41-percent clip from deep, the Knights had no answer.
"I think the guys are playing with some confidence now. It makes a difference," said Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers. "Shep Garner, right, he was in a little bit of a shooting slump up until Iowa ... he made five threes today and that really helps us out. It kind of loosens things up. Now you really don't know, you can't just focus on Taylor all game. You have to worry about Garner on the outside, Taylor on the inside and then you get some contributions from the other guys."
Rutgers takes a trek to Minnesota (7-19, 1-13) next for an 8:30 p.m. ET tip-off on Tuesday night at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
As winnable as the stretch seemed at first, Rutgers knows it won't be getting any breaks anytime soon. The Golden Gophers appeared set for a battle of winless Big Ten teams against the Knights before Minnesota knocked off No. 6 Maryland on Thursday.
But as much as the difficulty might grow for the Knights without their leading scorer on the floor, his replacement assured that it isn't an excuse for the team's drop off in effort or production.
"We have less room for error simply because now we're down to seven people, seven scholarship players. We just, we gotta play harder," said senior guard Bishop Daniels, who pitched in 13 points and a team-high four assists as he filled in for Sanders at the point. "With (Sanders) (or) without (Sanders), we gotta be more physical, go out there and just get it done. We gotta grind and get us a win."