PSU looks for answers after Rutgers loss

UNIVERSITY PARK — Tony Carr stared at the final stat sheet with a somber glare while Shep Garner fielded questions from the media. Penn State’s stat sheet was the autopsy report that revealed why the Lions had given Rutgers a 70-68 victory Saturday and its first Big Ten road win since joining the conference.

“Kind of just disbelief,” Carr said of his reaction to the loss. “Disbelief that we just had the opportunity slip through our hands again. It was just a big letdown.”

The Knights looked like a team in a complete downward spiral after giving up eight of their previous nine games. That continued a haunting 23 Big Ten road losing streak, but they capitalized on the Lions’ lackluster effort.

“We didn’t have that juice, we didn’t have that energy, we didn’t have that burst,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “I watched them tip the ball off and I’m like ‘we’re in trouble.'”

Trouble came in the form of lost rebounds. Midway through the first half, the Knights had outrebounded the Lions, 13-2, and finished the game with a 39-27 advantage. Rebounding dominance is nothing new for the Knights, who are fourth in the NCAA in rebounds per game (42.3).

“That’s something we’ve done all year,” Coach Steve Pikiell said. “We put in a bigger lineup.”

That bigger lineup included the seven-foot duo of Shaquille Doorson and C.J. Gettys. There was 6-foot-7 forward Deshawn Freeman, who relied heavily on second-chance shots to score 15 points. He led led both teams with eight rebounds.

The Knights outscored the Lions in the paint 14-0 in the first half. The home team didn’t record its first points from the paint until two minutes into the second half.

“For the most part, we kept them out of the lane,” Pikiell said. “And our big guys were active.”

Garner, who finished with a team-high 24 points, kept the Lions competitive despite their lack of interior production, scoring 15 of the team’s first 18 points from beyond the arc.

He was not bothered by the Knights’ exterior defense, which ranks first in Big Ten play in limiting opponents perimeter shooting percentage (.313). However, Garner’s teammates did not fare as well, missing all seven shots from beyond the arc in the first half.

The Lions only had four points from the field in the first half. Ten of those points came from the free throw line, and 15 (all of which were added by Garner) came from the beyond the arc.

Despite statistical dominance, the Knights’ lethargic offense put them up by only six points at halftime, 35-29.

Led by consistent offensive play from guard Corey Sanders, who finished the contest with 25 points and six rebounds, Rutgers extended its lead to 12 midway through the second half.

“That was the best game I’ve seen him play all year,” Chambers said. “We tried to trap him, we tried to blitz him, we tried to throw everything and the kitchen sink at him. They played harder.”

Lamar Stevens, who was leading the Lions in rebounding, fouled out with eight minutes left. This left the Knights with even more of an advantage in the paint. Chambers knew the risk of keeping Stevens in the game with four fouls, but the freshman was the only one getting rebounds.

“When I started going smaller, we were getting crushed on the glass,” Chambers said. “We need that fight.”

The Lions’ response to Stevens fouling out was to condense their defense. Sanders’ response to the condensed defense was to make 3-pointers. The sophomore sank two deep shots to keep the Knights at a comfortable 10-point lead.

Payton Banks sank his only bucket of the game with a 3-pointer that woke the crowd up midway through the second half. A few seconds later, the co-captain got a rebound, drove down the court, and fed the already-soaring Mike Watkins with an alley-oop. A comeback, which the Lions had done a number of times this season, seemed inevitable.

The Lions began to improve from their 26 percent first-half shooting display, converting on 54 percent of their shots from the field in the second half.

Carr, who finished with 17 points and has proven to be the team’s fourth quarter leader, found Josh Reaves open on the perimeter to cut the Knights’ lead to three with 15 seconds left.

A missed free throw by Sanders left the Lions with five seconds to force overtime. With all perimeter shooters covered, Carr drove the lane and put up an off-balance layup that rattled around the rim before falling out.

“You can’t show up in the last three minutes and finally play with some energy,” Chambers said. “I found out we’re young and we need better leadership.”

Penn State hosts Maryland Wednesday night.

RUTGERS (13-11): Freeman 6-8 3-4 15, Thiam 2-7 0-0 5, Gettys 4-7 2-2 10, Williams 4-10 2-5 12, Sanders 8-18 5-8 25, Omoruyi 1-4 0-0 2, Sa 0-0 0-2 0, Laurent 0-0 1-2 1, Diallo 0-0 0-0 0, Doorson 0-0 0-0 0, Dadika 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-54 13-23 70.

PENN STATE (12-12): Moore 0-4 0-0 0, Stevens 2-5 1-1 6, Carr 3-11 11-13 17, Reaves 2-4 0-0 5, Garner 9-13 0-0 24, Watkins 4-7 3-5 11, Banks 1-5 0-0 3, Samuel 0-3 2-2 2, Bostick 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-52 17-21 68.

Halftime–Rutgers 35-29. 3-Point Goals–Rutgers 7-16 (Sanders 4-5, Williams 2-6, Thiam 1-5), Penn St. 9-19 (Garner 6-9, Reaves 1-2, Stevens 1-2, Banks 1-3, Samuel 0-1, Carr 0-2). Fouled Out–Stevens. Rebounds–Rutgers 36 (Freeman 8), Penn St. 26 (Watkins 8). Assists–Rutgers 9 (Sanders 4), Penn St. 14 (Carr 4). Total Fouls–Rutgers 18, Penn St. 19. A–9,529 (15,261).