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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