Rutgers hangs on, defeats Penn State in first ever Big Ten road win
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After putting in one of its worst performances of the season against Iowa, a 20-point loss that saw head coach Steve Pikiell dig into his team for the first time, the Rutgers men’s basketball team was given two days off, both to rest and reflect.
In its return to practice Friday, Pikiell took the team through a film session of that contest, pointing out the issues he saw.
“He wasn’t proud at all,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders. “It was lack of toughness, lack of heart and we weren’t ready to play from the jump. So he was really stressing that we needed to make some changes.”
With a trip to State College coming up the next day to face Penn State, a team that spoiled New Years Day for the Scarlet Knights with a win at the RAC despite half the Nittany Lions suffering from a stomach flu, it had to happen fast.
Pikiell stressed that the contest with the Nittany Lions was a chance to show the toughness he said they lacked. More importantly, it was another chance for Rutgers to prove it could win a Big Ten game on the road, something it failed to do in its first 23 attempts.
He had some help hammering home the message.
“(Assistant) coach (Jay) Young had a speech (Friday) night saying we’re the team getting bullied right now on the road,” Sanders said. “We’re 0-23 so we’re either gonna add the 24 or we’re going to cut it down right now.”
The Knights heard it loud and clear.
They responded in historic fashion, going down to Happy Valley and conquering the Nittany Lions. Rutgers led Penn State (12-12, 4-8) for all but 50 seconds, holding back a late comeback bid from the hosts long enough to secure a 70-68 victory to finally break the streak.
When the Knights (13-11, 2-9) reached locker room, they were met with the chalkboard on the wall being marked with a big number 23 with an ‘X’ right through it.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” Pikiell said. “They’re a terrific team, they’re well coached and we had a stretch there where it was a long stretch. I got tired of reading it at the bottom of every game. I don’t want to be labeled by those kind of streaks so our guys did something about it today. They worked hard. They decided they were going to win a road game in the Big Ten."
It was Sanders who spearheaded the Knights, leading all scorers with 25 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists in one of his best performances in a Rutgers jersey.
He scored in every way possible, going 4-for-5 from beyond the arc in addition to his usual acrobatic layups and tear drops when attacking the rim and going 5-for-8 from the free throw line.
With junior guard Nigel Johnson, the team’s third leading scorer with 11 points per game, out with a lower body injury, Sanders carried the extra load himself.
“I knew without Nigel, that’s a scorer out there so I had to be extra aggressive,” Sanders said. “My 3-ball was falling tonight. Coach was telling us they were going to go under every screen, so I just took advantage of it and that’s things I’ve been working on in the gym. There were open shots that I was taking and once I hit like two or three, I was really finding a groove.”
Sanders hit the Knights' final bucket, his fifth free throw with five seconds to go, to put Rutgers back up by 2 points.
But his biggest contribution down the stretch was the final act of an impressive defensive display on Penn State guard Tony Carr, holding him to a pedestrian 3-for-11 day, with 11 of his 17 points coming from the free throw line.
Sanders would stay in front of Carr on the final possession, forcing an awkward lay up attempt that would go wide as the clock expired, the horn sounding as most of the 9,529 at the Bryce Jordan Arena let out sighs.
Despite playing 39 of the game’s 40 minutes, Sanders jumped around at the buzzer, as energetic as he was out of the gate.
“He was tough today,” Pikiell said of Sanders. “Really was excited about the toughness he showed today. Made some big plays down the stretch, as did everybody … when he plays like that, it really helps everybody. And on the defensive end is the job I think you don’t see … he had a tough matchup today with Carr … he had his work cut out for him. He’ll sleep well tonight.”
Had Penn State hit the shot, it would have completed a 13-point comeback, one that started soon after Rutgers took its biggest lead of the game with just under eight minutes to play.
But the Knights hung on for the first time on the road and overcame the late push from the Nittany Lions, despite some late turnovers, another lackluster clip from the free throw line (13-for-23) and an unconscious day from Penn State junior Shep Garner.
Garner came out of the gates blazing hot, scoring 15 of his team’s first 19 points, hitting 4 of his first 5 attempts from beyond the arc. He finished with 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting, including 6-for-9 from deep, but only scored 7 points in the second half.
It would not be enough to tip the balance of the Knights' dominance on the glass — they outrebounded the Nittany Lions 39-27 and outscored them 17-4 on second-chance points — in the paint and in their minds.
Penn State head coach Pat Chambers saw in his team what Pikiell saw in Rutgers against Iowa — and it cost the Nittany Lions like it cost the Knights.
“(Rutgers) played harder and when you play harder, good things happen,” Chambers said. “I didn’t think we had that juice. We didn’t have that energy. We didn’t have that burst. We didn’t have that giddy up. I felt like we had a good day yesterday, really positive, upbeat, ready to start swinging again and I watched them throw the ball up and thought, ‘we’re in trouble.’ I could see the body language. I could see the energy.”
With the script flipped, Rutgers is happy to finally taste victory on the road. But that doesn’t mean the Knights will be content with just crossing out the 23.
“We’re excited, but this is just the first step,” said senior center C.J. Gettys. “We got 7 more games left and then the Big Ten Tournament. This is a stepping stone, a step in the right direction and we want to build on this.”