PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — After squandering a 15-point second-half half lead against Penn State, Rutgers did what it has done all season and found a way to win at home.
Not only did the Scarlet Knights (18-12, 12-8 Big Ten) win for the 14th time in 17 games at Jersey Mike's Arena, they also might have done just enough to get a second straight bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Senior Ron Harper Jr. scored 15 points and hit a go-ahead free throw with 1:41 to play as the Scarlet Knights edged Penn State 59-58 Sunday.
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell didn't hesistate when asked if 12 wins in one of the toughest, if not the toughest, conference was enough for an NCAA bid.
“I just look at this league. I know how we’re playing,” Pikiell said. “Not only can we be in that thing, we can win some games, too. This is a really good basketball team.”
If there is a knock against the Scarlet Knights it's they have some bad losses this season — Lafayette, UMass, DePaul, Penn State (12-16, 7-13). They have been oddly inconsistent. Great one half, bad the next.
That's what happened Sunday as Penn State picked up its defense and used a 24-9 run to tie the game at 55 on a jumper by Seth Lundy with 2:00 left.
Harper put Rutgers back in front, making the second of two free throws. Caleb McConnell added two more free throws with 31.4 seconds left and Geo Baker made one to give the Scarlet Knights (18-12, 12-8 Big Ten) a 59-55 lead with 17 seconds to play.
Sam Sessoms closed the lead to 59-58 with a 3-pointer with 11 seconds to play. He had a chance to win the game after Paul Mulcahy threw away an inbounds pass next to the Penn State bench with four seconds left.
Sessoms took a cross-court pass and his very contested 3-pointer at the buzzer came up short.
“It was a whole lot of relief,” Harper said of the final miss.
Actually, the Nittany Lions had a chance to tie the game at 58 with 20 seconds to go but Greg Lee also missed a 3-pointer.
“I never thought it was over,” Harper said. “That’s a really good basketball team. I told these guys, the record doesn’t display how good they actually are. They play tough games, night in and night out, and a lot of their losses are really tight games like this.”
First-year Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said he hopes to rebuild his program the way Pikiell rebuilt Rutgers with hard, tough, talented players.
“It just took us too long to settle in today,” he said. “Once we got settled we played the way we wanted to play for 40 minutes.”
Cliff Omoruyi and Dean Reiber added nine points apiece for Rutgers, which did not score a basket in the final 5:35.
John Harrar had 15 points and 17 rebounds for Penn State, which lost its third straight game. It was his 11th double-double of the season. Lundy added 17 points and Sessoms finished with 13. The Nittany Lions were 6 of 24 from long range.
Rutgers twice led by 15 points in the second half, the last time at 46-31 with 12:39 left in regulation.
Omoruyi picked up two fouls in the opening 61 seconds and it didn't hurt the Scarlet Knights. Reiber came off the bench and quickly hit a 3-pointer and converted an ally-oop dunk that sparked an 18-7 run. Reiber finished with all nine of his points in the half as the Scarlet Knights built a 29-21 lead.
The Scarlet Knights used an 11-0 run bridging the end of the first half and the start of the second to build a 36-21 lead.
Penn State: Will be the No. 11 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and play an opening-round game Wednesday.
Rutgers: The 12 conference wins were its most in the Big Ten. Coupled with No. 23 Ohio State's loss to Michigan and No. 24 Iowa's loss to No. 20 Illinois on Sunday, the Scarlet Knights ended the season as the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament. It earned them a doule bye and they will open Friday in the quarterfinals.
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