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Rutgers bench plays key role in epic comeback



Feb 26, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Oskar Palmquist (1) shoots the ball as Penn State Nittany Lions guard Andrew Funk (10) defends during the second half at Bryce Jordan Center. Rutgers defeated Penn State 59-56. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Sunday night’s road game against Penn State, Rutgers had lost four of its five games without starting forward Mawot Mag. An inspiring road win at Wisconsin was sandwiched between two disappointing home losses to Nebraska and Michigan. The Scarlet Knights were struggling offensively and appeared to be playing with a lack of confidence.

Those issues were present once again in Happy Valley as Rutgers trailed 26-9 in the first half. For a team sprinting the wrong way to the NCAA Tournament bubble, something had to change.

That change did come just in time and it was due to the bench of Rutgers. In overcoming a 19 point second half deficit, the bench was crucial to the Scarlet Knights earning the biggest comeback victory for the program in 27 years.

On a night that Paul Mulcahy fouled out with zero points, freshman Derek Simpson stepped up in a major way. He finished with a team high 16 points on 6 of 14 shooting. Simpson added 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 0 turnovers in 28 minutes.

Simpson’s confidence and ability to get downhill changed the game. With Rutgers trailing by 17 points in the first half, he scored the last 7 points to cut the lead to 10 points heading into the break. When the game was on the line with just over a minute to play, it was Simpson who took control and delivers the winning points.

“Our bench was terrific,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Derek (Simpson) came in and certainly did not play like a freshman. He got us going and we hung around. He’s playing a lot more minutes ever since Mawot (Mag) has gone down and he’s practicing better. He was very confident today and he got it going.”

Pikiell continued, “We needed all of his points and he, as well as Oskar (Palmquist) and Wolf (Antwone Woolfolk) gave us great minutes today. Our bench was excellent on offense and defense. They have a really good offensive team, so you need to guard great players, but it’s a good sign for Derek moving forward. We need him to be this kind of a player.”

The fact that Pikiell trusted Simpson with the ball in his hands with the outcome hanging in the balance shouldn’t be that surprising. He’s played down the stretch of the previous six games since Mag has been injured. That experience and Simpson making key plays in several of those games helped him take over against Penn State.

“Oh, man, I didn’t know Derek was a freshman tonight,” Caleb McConnell said. “Derek was awesome tonight. We got him going. He found a hot hand. Derek got downhill and just created plays and then he just made it happen as well. That’s something that Derek has been doing all season and it was just a matter of time.”

As for the impactful freshman, he sounded like a veteran in the postgame. His first comments were praising his teammates.

“I want to give a big shout out to Cliff (Omoruyi) and Antwone (Woolfolk),” Simpson said. “They were setting me really good screens and got me open, but I thought the guys really stayed together. We didn’t have those blank looks on our face the whole game, we pulled it out and I’m really thankful for our guys”.

As for Oskar Palmquist, he made two huge three-pointers in the second half that helped drive the comeback. He was 2 of 3 from deep while adding a rebound and a steal. Most importantly, Palmquist looks much more comfortable on the floor on both ends. After not playing much at all this season entering the month of February, he’s emerged as an important role player as March approaches.

“Talk about a guy who’s stayed ready and stayed the course, he’s really giving us some fiber off the bench,” Pikiell said. “We had to change our rotation and we were getting really great minutes off Aundre Hyatt, but we also needed new bench production and Oskar has been tremendous. I’m really proud of him, it’s not easy when you’re not playing a lot and you have to keep fighting. He’s poised out there and we need him to continue that.”

After not playing one second in January, Palmquist is shooting 43.5% from three (10-23) over his last 8 games. His comfort level and confidence appears to grow by the game. He’s a perfect example in how Rutgers is still evolving post-Mag.

Antwone Woolfolk was the only other player to come off the bench against Penn State. While he played just 8 minutes, he provided competent relief for Cliff Omoruyi to get a breather in both halves. He did a good job hedging on screens on the defensive end while setting screens on the offensive end. While he didn’t score, Wolf grabbed two rebounds, one on either end. He also fouled just once, which has been an issue. His footwork and agility for a big man gives him an intriguing skill set. He showed progress on Sunday night.

“This team is tough,” McConnell said. “I feel like when we stick together, we can come over, and we can figure out anything, especially something like this. I feel like that’s what we did. We have players stepping up. Derek, Oskar (Palmquist), Antwone Woolfolk and our bench. We just made the little plays and we just stuck together throughout the whole game.”

The win gave Rutgers its fourth Quad 1 road win of the season and put them one step closer to qualifying for a program record three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. There is more work to be done as the final week of the regular season is here. However, Rutgers proved once again on Sunday that when their backs are against the wall, they have a knack for coming through. This year’s team more than any in recent seasons will need their bench to be a factor moving forward.

“We need everybody,” said Pikiell. “Today we needed everybody to check in the game. Foul trouble, everything, Aundre has been really good for us. We can move Oskar around to a lot of different positions too. They’re very versatile guys. We need everybody on the roster. The next game could be Dean Reiber’s game. It could be someone else. We need everyone and we always utilize our entire roster at some point in time during the year.”

What’s been most impressive about this team is the development of players this season who were not key contributors to years past. Player development has been a pillar for success in the Pikiell era. The bench proved that again on Sunday. That’s the sign of a successful program. And of course, it’s the leaders that pass down the winning ways.

“That’s our culture,” McConnell said. “When our backs against the wall, we stick together, we show grit, we grind and, and that’s why we’re able to do things like this. That’s kind of what we’ve been preaching all year. Stay together, stay together, stay together and when we do us, we get us results. That’s what we showed tonight.”

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  1. Henry Rutgers

    February 27, 2023 at 2:23 pm

    Well written summary, Aaron. You captured the highs and lows of this schizophrenic team.

    I skipped the gym this morning. I contorted to every position imaginable in the theater chair and was accused of something resembling jumping jacks when I bolted out of my chair throughout the game. If I am supposed to do twenty minutes of cardio with a heart rate over 110 BPM I think I can take the entire week off. McConnell is going to be responsible for my hospitalization if he doesn’t make his foul shots down the stretch. It would be interesting to monitor the Faithful fans BP throughout a game.

    I am curious about something and since you’ve proven over and over to be a good writer and researcher would you know who among the ‘seniors’ we’re honoring at the NWU game has eligibility and might return? It seems like McConnell has been on the team long enough to have gotten a PhD. What about Spenser and Mulcahy?

    • Aaron Breitman

      February 27, 2023 at 2:36 pm

      McConnell, Mulcahy, Hyatt and Palmquist. All can return except for McConnell. Its been standard practice that four year players walk who have the extra covid year as an option to return. No decisions have been announced in regard to if the three will return. Spencer is in his fourth year but unless I missed it is not walking on Senior Day. Either way I think he’s as close a lock to return.

      • thevinman

        February 27, 2023 at 6:02 pm

        It would be shocking to me if any other three with eligibility don’t return.

  2. Henry Rutgers

    February 27, 2023 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you. If Cliff stays and Mag gets healthy with the additional incoming talent, there is no limit to what might be. One game at a time, one season at a time but it is exciting.

    • FlaRef

      February 27, 2023 at 3:11 pm

      Cliff needs one more year of practice and playing in the B1G to develop his inside game and shots facing the rim. If he bulks up and can get a shot, watch out!

      • Henry Rutgers

        February 27, 2023 at 4:27 pm

        I seem to recall another post where you made a great call on getting Simpson to PG to aggressively advance or free up Cam for open looks. Nice call.

      • InPikeWeTrust

        February 27, 2023 at 8:20 pm

        “…when we do us, we get us results.”
        This is one of the best quotes. Caleb is a warrior. People like to ride him about some of his imperfections – shot selection, limited ability/streaky scoring, inopportune and strange decisions – but that 3 he hit with the game and, perhaps, season on the brink was enormous, especially with Penn State begging him to shoot. His D, his rebounding, his fight, his passion is awesome. He gave a gargantuan fist pump as time expired. You could feel how much he wanted this game. I’m going to miss him more than any player who’s come through this era. He epitomizes Pikiell more than any other player. Geo is everyone’s go-to for the symbol of the Pike rebuild but in so many ways it’s Caleb. We gotta send him out next Sunday with an enormous outpouring of thanks. Let’s make it a W too, please!

        • Aaron Breitman

          February 27, 2023 at 10:34 pm

          Well said and completely agree.

    • Aaron Breitman

      February 27, 2023 at 3:56 pm

      Also I saw your comment on OTB. That letter was not a public statement or apology. It was sent to members of their student group. So no credit to PSU for addressing the situation until they do so formally.

      • Henry Rutgers

        February 27, 2023 at 4:21 pm

        Absolutely agree. We also need to address the issue of our Riot Squad chanting R-U during the playing of the PSU alma mater.

  3. thevinman

    February 27, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Great article Aaron, as usual. As poorly as Paul and Andre have been playing the past few games we need them both if we are going to make a run in the Big Ten tournament and or the NCAAs.

  4. pj43

    February 27, 2023 at 9:08 pm

    The player that I have my eye on as someone that can be a future difference maker is Woolfolk. He displays exactly what Aaron pointed out, i.e. footwork & agility. In addition, for someone with limited experience as a basketball player, he shows a great deal of poise on the floor. Here’s someone with a lot of upside potential now that he can devote all of his athletic focus to basketball. Hopefully, he’ll develop his overall game in the off season and be a reliable force at both ends of the court next season.

    • InPikeWeTrust

      February 27, 2023 at 9:49 pm

      I’ve been on Woolf’s bandwagon all season. From jump street he’s displayed amazing feet for a big man. He has as high a ceiling as a defender as anyone I can remember in our program for a freshman. Great instincts to boot, especially considering his limited exposure to the game.

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