Piscataway, NJ- Aside from pulling off an upset against a ranked team, good wins take time to develop.
But a bad loss -- those you can circle on the calendar. They're moments where the fallout is immediately evident.
Penn State's men's basketball team played itself into a bad loss on a chilly and wet Saturday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center only two games into conference play. A 50-46 setback to a simply poor Rutgers team gave the Nittany Lions a dose of reality.
There is work left to do.
Much as has been the case this season a cold shooting start plagued Penn State in the early going with Rutgers taking an 11-1 lead. The Nittany Lions missed open looks, took bad shots and turned the ball over seven times in the first half. Penn State's first basket from the floor came nearly eight minutes into the game.
Penn State would make only five shots in the first 20 minutes with at least two coming in transition. Of the 26 first half shots Penn State took 12 from behind the arc and only made one. Normally dependable DJ Newbill was held to just a single basket in the half with Rutgers' big men locking down the paint and blocking five shots in 20 minutes of play.
The struggles weren't simply on Newbill though. No Penn State player would make two baskets in the half and four would miss three or more shots. Brandon Taylor finished the game 3-of-11 from the field, Newbill 4-of-17, Shep Garner 3-of-10. A usually deep roster came up empty as primary scorers struggled to find their rhythm. Only days after holding their own against No. 4 Wisconsin, the Nittany Lion offense was effectively missing in action.
But the Nittany Lions trailed only 30-19 at the break. Rutgers collected that 11 point lead thanks to an odd alchemy of answered prayers, Penn State mistakes and free throws.
Penn State would erase the lead too. The Nittany Lions opened the second half on a 6-0 run thanks to threes by Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner. But Penn State shot a paltry 5-of-27 from behind the arc by the game's end.
Even with the continued cold shooting, Penn State found itself down by only 2 with 6:07 to play, with an opportunity to steal a victory out of a game that few fans, players and coaches will ever want to remember. A 70-30 split of a Rutgers/Penn State crowd was cheering made baskets simply because someone finally made a shot.
Penn State got within one with 2:17 to play but a lone Newbill jumper in that final span would be all the points the Nittany Lions scored. A three by Newbill to tie the game with 11 seconds to play rimmed out leaving his follow-up attempt with three seconds to play down 4 a formality.
And that (see all of the above) is perhaps what will make Penn State's loss to Rutgers more frustrating than most for fans. The Scarlet Knights only made four baskets from the field in the second half, shooting 4-of-25. Rutgers' safety net was an 11-of-19 performance from the free throw line in the final 20 minutes of play. As poorly as Penn State played, Rutgers tried its hardest to perform even worse.
All of this follows a series of non-conference games Penn State confidently won by the skin of its teeth. That non-conference schedule was supposed to prepare the Nittany Lions for nights like this -- at least in theory.
The biggest lesson for the Nittany Lions: that for as good as they can be at times, they still have to play at a high level on a consistent basis. Perhaps that lesson was not learned until Saturday evening because so many last second wins have gone in Penn State's favor so far this year. It's not that the 12-1 start to the season (now turned 12-3) is somehow a farce, but that the Nittany Lions can't simply assume they've made it. Play badly, everyone will make you pay.
Fortunately for a team that has been on something of a sporadic schedule Penn State will turn around and play again on Tuesday at home against Michigan.
Saturday night's loss made it clear that casual talk about making the post season is still premature, but if that reasonable goal is to be achieved, a win against an up and down Wolverine team would do wonders. If nothing else it is simply a win.
The bottom line is that Penn State played poorly against a team it should have beaten. Even if doesn't turn out to be a bad loss on its NCAA resume, those kind of losses can be the hardest for a growing program to swallow.
Did you get away from who you try and be as a team tonight?
No not really. We gave up 50 points. I thought we defended and rebounded. I think they did a good job, have to give Rutgers a lot of credit. We missed a ton of shots.
Were you happy with the decision making at certain junctures?
Obviously, we turned the ball over at really bad times, critical times. We took way too many threes, I'm sure that was their game plan. We have to put the ball inside more. We tried to do that. We have to keep defending and rebounding. That's life on the road in the Big Ten. Nothing is going to come easy, they wanted it more, they made the winning plays down the stretch, those offensive rebounds are killers.
Where do you go from here?
Pick ourselves back up, we've finally got a home game. We've got to protect our home court, we've been very good at home this year. So obviously this is a tough loss, Wisconsin was a tough loss, but we've got to move on and continue to get better, we've got to find ways to manufacture some points and look at some of the statistics here, it was very ugly.
What worked in the second half to cut into the lead?
I just thought we defended, we played with more energy. Again, you're on the road. Very difficult to win on the road. We did some good things, we actually hit a couple threes early on there so that always helps. But I think at critical points when we needed a good shot or a better shot or maybe an extra pass or a paint touch we didn't do it.
What did Rutgers do to defend Newbill so well?
I think they sped him up a little bit. Again, Rutgers did a good job meeting him at the rim. He has been doing a really good job finishing and it's always hard when you're not hitting your outside shot so they know you're going to drive it.
Frustration getting out hustled.
Yea, we got out hustled. They made winning plays and we take pride in making winning plays and we didn't do it. Look, maybe it's me, maybe it's because I made an adjustment in the starting lineup and it came back to bite me. But I believe in the starting lineup I believe it's going to make us the best team that we can be.
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