Rutgers comes back but can't finish in senior night thriller against Penn State
Down by 18 at halftime against Penn State, the Rutgers men’s basketball team looked dead in the water.
The energy inside the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) was dimming as the Scarlet Knights (14-15, 7-12) were in danger of having done to them what they did to Iowa just four days prior — suffer a blowout loss on senior night.
If Rutgers had made just one more shot, it likely could've come away with a comeback win over the Nittany Lions (13-17, 6-13) in front of a sold-out crowd in its final home game of the season.
But not all stories have fairy tale endings and the Knights couldn’t capture the win for their fans or their lone senior in graduate student center Shaquille Doorson, even though they had their fair share of chances. Instead, they fall to their cross-state rival, 66-65.
“Give Penn State credit, (it) played really well and were one point better than us,” said head coach Steve Pikiell.
With 9 seconds remaining in the game and Rutgers down by 1 point, sophomore guard Geo Baker, who had been 0-6 from deep, took a chance with a 3-pointer but couldn’t drain it. Luckily, true freshman guard Caleb McConnell came up with the offensive rebound, went to a crowded rim and tried to lay it in but it didn’t fall.
Junior forward Eugene Omoruyi and redshirt freshman forward Myles Johnson then both went up for the board with neither able to fully secure it. Once Johnson came down with it and with time running out, he quickly put up a shot but it was blocked, giving Penn State the win over the Knights.
“I saw a lot of good looks,” Pikiell said when asked about the final few shots. “But it wasn’t that. We got down 20 points in a basketball game in the Big Ten so (it) was hard to come back.”
After a half to forget that featured just 19 points on a 7-28 shooting performance including 0-10 from deep as well as 4 of the starting 5 not recording a single point, Rutgers came out of the locker room with what appeared to be a different mindset.
The Knights started the second half on a 7-2 run that turned into a 17-8 run that turned into a 36-23 run that eventually finished as a 46-29 half — a complete reversal of the first half.
“(It was) just us not playing hard enough and just coming out with more purpose and I feel like that’s what we did in the second half,” said junior forward Eugene Omoruyi on the team’s second half resurgence.
Omoruyi led all scorers with 23 points on the night going 7-14 from the field and 9-11 from the line and was the only player not affected by the shooting woes in the first half. The co-captain also added seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and one steal.
Aside from Omoruyi, Rutgers received contributions from a trio of freshmen in Johnson and guards Ron Harper Jr. — fresh off being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week — and McConnell. The three of them finished with a combined 36 points.
“I was proud of our guys, responded at halftime and (if) we play like that we’ll be fine, but you gotta play like that for 40 minutes,” Pikiell said.
And despite playing a team-high 35 minutes, Baker never got it going in this game and shot 0-10 from the field, the first time he’s been held scoreless this season and the second time in his career.
Nevertheless, Baker did have five rebounds, two assists and three steals.
In his last home game as a Knight, Doorson finished with 2 points, five rebounds and a block in 17 minutes of action. After the game, the other co-captain reflected on his time at Rutgers.
“I’ve seen a lot of transformation at Rutgers,” he said. “The energy the students bring to our team is really contagious so I really love how the students keep supporting us every day and I hope they continue to do that over the years to come.”
For this year, though, as of right now, the Knights remain in 10th place in the conference rankings and are one spot ahead of Indiana who they face on Sunday in their regular season finale.
A win would secure a first-round bye for Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, but if the Knights lose, depending on what happens around the conference, they run the serious risk of playing in the first round.
“Seeing the growth of this team has been really exciting. We've gotten better and better as the season has gone on,” Pikiell said. “I'm excited about my team going forward. We have a lot of basketball left to play.”
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