Sunday’s game against Rutgers was unquestionably the biggest game Penn State basketball has played in the Bryce Jordan Center this season.
It’s equally difficult to argue that it wasn’t Penn State’s biggest home game in Micah Shrewsberry’s almost two full seasons as coach.
Some fans took it a step further in the game’s build-up. Some claimed it was the biggest game Penn State’s had in the BJC since Talor Battle’s great shot beat Illinois.
That shot happened in February 2009.
That’s more than 14 years ago.
People can debate the magnitude of Sunday’s game; truthfully, we won’t know until this season’s dust has settled.
But what isn’t up for debate is that Penn State blew it.
There’s always more than one reason for a team coughing up a 19-point second-half lead, and plenty of things went wrong for Penn State.
Seth Lundy went 1-for-16 from the field and 0-11 from 3-point land.
Andrew Funk took seven shots– all 3s– and made just one of them.
One of the best players in college basketball, Jalen Pickett, didn’t take a shot in the second half, and all of this contributed to the team not scoring a field goal in the game’s last 9:16.
For Shrewsberry, the loss also fell under the theme of Penn State not getting it done when the lights were bright.
After the game, Shrewsberry made this point to Penn State’s radio announcers, Steve Jones and Dick Jerardi, and reinforced it to reporters later in his postgame presser.
“I told Steve and Dick on the radio; we’ve sucked when people have come to games,” Shrewsberry said. “We’ve sucked.”
Is he right? It’s hard to say. Few Penn State fans are likely to argue that the team doesn’t perform well when many people are paying attention. But a deeper dive into it doesn’t support Shrewsberry’s claim.
The game’s paid attendance was a season-high 12,082. It was just the third time in 15 games at the Bryce Jordan Center that the paid attendance was above 10,000. In the other two games, against Michigan (12,047) and Nebraska (11,297), Penn State won by double digits. So, that puts a dent in Shrewsberry’s claim.
But what supports Shrewsberry’s game is that Penn State didn’t play Michigan or Nebraska on the brink of March.
Penn State basketball is rarely in the thick of the NCAA Tournament picture this late in the season.
This season, it is.
According to ESPN’s Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, Penn State came into Sunday’s game squarely on the bubble, the first team out of the tournament (No. 69, right outside the 68-team field).
Penn State could have significantly helped its tournament chances by beating a projected tournament team in Rutgers. Penn State fans and college basketball media, both local and national, knew it.
Shrewsberry, his staff and his players knew, too, and Shrewsberry openly wondered after the game if his players bought too much into the big picture and if the hype led their minds to stray from the assignment, which was beating Rutgers.
“I don’t know whether we’re too amped up to play, or we’re too juiced to play or maybe we’re reading press clippings of how important this game was instead of really focusing on one game,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s one game.”
Of Penn State’s 12 losses, this one hurt the most by a Joel Embiid-sized margin. But Penn State has opportunities– albeit limited– to make up for it.
The team has two regular-season games left, both within the next week.
First up is a game at Northwestern, scheduled for Wednesday, March 1, at 9. Penn State ends its regular season Sunday at noon against Maryland at home.
Shrewsberry knows how much the loss to Rutgers hurts now but also knows it’s in the past.
“This game, yeah, it’s important because it was the game that we were playing,” he said. “But no game’s more important than the other, and we have to come back and get to practice and work on some things and be better and go play Northwestern. And that’s one game. And that’s one game, and that’s it.”
Unless the team finds a way into the “Big Dance” through solid play in the last two games and the Big Ten Tournament, the loss to Rutgers will linger for quite some time.
Quite frankly, it was a loss that shouldn’t have happened.
“Maybe our minds weren’t in the right place coming into this,” Shrewsberry said. “Maybe we were too hyped or too jacked up, but we gotta finish the game the right way, man. Can’t give up a 19-point lead in the second half.