There’s a fair debate to be had about how much “didn’t win but almost won” counts towards the merits of being a quality basketball team. Winning is – after all – the whole point of playing. If you’re losing you must not be very good.
So on the one hand, Penn State basketball has not been very good this year, winning its first Big Ten game in six attempts on Thursday night to find itself still squarely in the bottom of the league.
So congrats on that.
But if one considers that the Nittany Lions have lost Big Ten games in overtime, by four points and saw a game a Purdue slip away, it’s not as though Penn State is simply bad relative to the general competency needed to be competitive in a game, they aren’t wildly out of their league, they just can’t quite win. So yes, they hadn’t won, and yes that means they are bad, but they hadn’t exactly played poorly, even without the required size inside to defend the paint.
Losing is losing. But you can still be due for a win.
Which is what happened Thursday as Penn State ran past Rutgers in the first half and hung on in the second to the tune of a 75-67 victory, the first of 2021.
The Nittany Lions shot 51% from the field in the opening 20 minutes while holding the Scarlet Knights to just 36% from the floor over the same span of time.
The trio of Myreon Jones, Seth Lundy and Izaiah Brockington each managed 16 or 17 points as John Harrar racked up 11 rebounds and eight points the Nittany Lions winning the battle on the glass 40-27.
By the half Penn State led 34-24. But anyone who has seen Penn State basketball knew that Thursday night’s game was far from over.
And it was, cooler shooting in the second half coupled by Rutgers’ own improved and more effective offense saw the Nittany Lions’ 18-point margin eventually cut to just four points in the game’s final minutes.
However this is where the rub lies with Penn State basketball. A team that hasn’t been bad this year but rather some combination of unlucky, cold shooting at the wrong moments and maybe being not quite as good as its opponent.
In those moments that’s when games are won and lost. It’s one thing to stick around, it’s another thing to answer the comeback.
And with 6:45 to go in regulation, Penn State faced a moment like that, ahead by 10 but with Rutgers charging.
The Nittany Lions responded in the next few minutes, making five of the next seven shots, just enough to hold the Scarlet Knights back, just enough to force fouls and free throws.
Just enough to win.
With 12 games to go Penn State will have plenty of chances to prove the difference between being a good team and a team capable of hanging around with good teams.
That being said, this win was overdue, and Penn State winning more than a few of its final 12 wouldn’t shock the world quite like the standings would suggest.
The Nittany Lions are back in action Saturday night against Northwestern at the BJC.