Rutgers improved to 6-3 in Big Ten play and moved into sole possession of second place after a dominant 65-45 win over Penn State on Tuesday night. Their defense held PSU to 33% shooting including 4 of 26 from three. In addition, I thought head coach Steve Pikiell made five key decisions in the game that were notable in the victory.
Game plan at the start
Getting Cliff Omoruyi going early on established Rutgers inside. It was a sound game plan by Pikiell and the coaching staff. They took control of the game from there and never relinquished it. He scored 12 points in the first 11 minutes of the game as RU jumped out to a 18-11 lead. While he only scored 4 points the rest of the game, his presence opened things up for his teammates. He also controlled the glass and defended the rim the entire game. Omoruyi ultimately finished with 16 points, 1o rebounds and 3 blocks. Rutgers finished the game with a 34-18 advantage with points in the paint and a +17 rebounding margin in large part because of Omoruyi.
Inserting Caleb McConnell with 3 fouls and 12:33 left
When Caleb McConnell picked up his third foul just a minute into the second half, Pikiell wisely took him out right away. However, his absence allowed Penn State star Jalen Pickett to get going. One of the best players in college basketball was held to just 5 points on 2 of 4 shooting in the first half with McConnell as his primary defender. As soon as McConnell checked out of the game, Pickett went to work. He scored 8 points on 4 of 5 shooting over the next six plus minutes of the game. An eight point halftime lead had shrunk to 3 points for Rutgers.
Pikiell responded by inserting McConnell back in the game with 12:33 remaining. On the first possession, he found space long the baseline and his a mid-range jumper to extend the lead back to 5 points. However, it was his defensive impact that changed the game. Pickett only scored 2 points the rest of the way on 1 of 3 shooting. He had two turnovers and the signature play for McConnell defensively was recovering on a drive to block Pickett’s shot near the rim.
The two players were teammates in high school and know each other’s game well. Pickett has blossomed into a dynamic offensive player while Caleb McConnell continues to defend at a high level after winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season. On Tuesday night, McConnell won the one on one battle. It was Pikiell’s timing that helped turn the tide and Rutgers winning by such a large margin.
Sticking with Aundre Hyatt
Entering the second half against Penn State, Aundre Hyatt had scored just 2 points over the last 2.5 games while going 0 for 13 from the field during that stretch. When McConnell picked up his third foul a minute into the second half, Pikiell didn’t hesitate and put Hyatt back in the game. Soon after, Hyatt ended his shooting drought from the field with a turnaround jumper. However, he didn’t score or even take a shot over the next seven minutes.
When McConnell returned, Pikiell kept Hyatt in the game. With leading scorer Cam Spencer struggling, he gave his veteran an opportunity to step up. Hyatt ultimately delivered in a big way.
With the lead still in single digits, Hyatt exploded for 8 points over a two-plus minute stretch. It included a dunk in the half court followed by back to back three-pointers. It extended the Rutgers lead to 51-38 with over eight minutes to play. Penn State was unable to cut the deficit to single digits the rest of the game.
Hyatt went on to score off an offensive rebound and put the exclamation point on the victory with a dunk for the final score of the game. He finished with 14 points, all in the second half, along with 4 rebounds, 2 assists, a block and a steal.
When asked about Hyatt’s second half performance being key to the victory, Pikiell agreed.
“Yeah, it really was and I told him at halftime he’s going to have a great second half and we really believe in him. I think he’s one of the best sixth men in the country,” Pikiell stated. We need that from him. He was bouncy, he teed it up when he was open. He just did a really good job and then the guys found him during that stretch. I love as a team when we embrace someone else’s success. Guys were saying in the huddle ’get Aundre the ball.’ It’s always a good sign when other players are recognizing and then trying to get him the basketball. I thought we did a good job getting Cliff involved in the first half – another double-double for him. And then when Aundre got it going, getting him involved.”
Hyatt is an important contributor for this team and his play was instrumental in Tuesday’s victory. Pikiell’s belief in him was a big reason why.
Calling Timeout with 3:31 to play
Andrew Funk hit a three with less than four minutes remaining to cut the Rutgers lead to 57-45. While it was only the fourth make from behind the arc in the game for Penn State, it caused a temporary moment of concern. Was this the shot PSU needed to catch fire from three and make a furious comeback in the final minutes? It wasn’t and Pikiell’s decision to call timeout after Funk’s three was part of why.
He used the timeout to reset his team and it worked. Penn State was held scoreless in the final 3:31 of the game. They finished the game missing all five shots, including three more from deep, and committing two turnovers. Rutgers ended the game on a 8-0 run to win 65-45.
The Scarlet Knights were in a strong position to win the game before the timeout, but Pikiell sensed the possibility of a comeback. He didn’t take any chances and his team responded by dominating the closing minutes of the game.
Playing the Bench Late
Down the stretch with Rutgers in front, Pikiell inserted Jalen Miller and Antwone Woolfolk. Miller played four minutes and Woolfolk three minutes. Neither made much of an impact, but they got real time in a key conference game as Rutgers was closing things out. They were on the floor with the core players and gained valuable experience. It’s the type of move that didn’t factor into the game last night. However, it’s part of developing younger players by putting them in those type of spots. It was noteworthy that Pikiell had his pulse on the big picture while also closing out an important league game.
As for after the game, Pikiell praised his players for the job they did in the win and the season so far.
“It’s Paul – it’s these guys. It’s Caleb McConnell, Cam (Spencer) and those guys. They’ve decided that they want to be really good on both ends of the floor, but especially on that defensive end and when they’re connected they’ve done a good job,” Pikiell explained. “They dictate what kind of season we have. The players are in charge and they were locked in. They were locked in today. They (Penn State) play at that pace anyway, so I knew it would be that kind of a game. We just did a good job being locked in, but it’s the players’ program.”
With Rutgers 14-6 overall and 6-3 in Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights are now No. 19 in the NET rankings and No. 17 in KenPom. A season some expected to be a transition period has turned into a chance for Pikiell’s best yet at Rutgers. His ability to get the most of his players has been a driving force this season. He gives them freedom to operate on offense which helps lead to the players full buy-in on the defensive end. It was a full group effort in dominating on the boards in the win as well.
This team has taken on his personality. The Scarlet Knights are as tough as any team in college basketball but also unselfish and play for each other. Their connectedness is an extension of how Pikiell coaches them. Pikiell continues to push the right buttons this season and Tuesday was just the latest example.
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