Rutgers kept pace in the Big Ten title race with a dominant win over an old rival.
The Scarlet Knights (14-6, 6-3) crushed Penn State (13-7, 4-5) in a 65-45 victory at Jersey Mike’s Arena on Tuesday, using their superior size to bully their old Atlantic 10 counterparts in the first half before burying them behind the arc in a wire-to-wire win.
Center Cliff Omoruyi (16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, 10 rebounds, three blocks) led the charge in a first half where Rutgers outscored Penn State 22-6 in the paint, then reserve forward Aundre Hyatt (14 points on 6-6). of-11 shooting, one block, one steal) took over in the second with eight straight points that turned a tight game into a blowout. Along the way, the Scarlet Knights’ perimeter defense held the second-best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten during conference play (41.3% entering Tuesday) to a season-low 15.4% clip (4-of-26).
The win keeps Rutgers within two games of first-place No. 1 Purdue in the Big Ten standings, its faint hopes of a historic regular season championship intact and staying on pace for a record-high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It did what it must do to achieve those goals: beating an inferior team at home. The Scarlet Knights are now 3-1 at home in Big Ten play this season and 20-4 in their last 24 Big Ten home games with fans at the stands.
Rutgers went at its visitors early and often, getting the ball inside the paint on nearly every trip down the floor. Eight of the Scarlet Knights’ first nine shots came in the paint, and when its 10th shot came from beyond the arc, Omoruyi was there to clean up the miss and put it back for the 11th. They’d score 22 of their 32 first-half points in the paint while holding the Nittany Lions to fewer lay-ups (2) than turnovers (3) before the break.
Penn State steadily closed the gap to start the second half, cutting its deficit to three points with 13 minutes to play by clamping down inside — Rutgers scored just 2 points in the paint in the first eight minutes of the second half — and riding star guard Jalen Pickett, who scored more in the first eight minutes of the second half (8 points) than the entire first half (5).
But the Nittany Lions could not fully close the gap because Rutgers took away their biggest strength. With a chance to tie the game, the visitors missed three three-pointers on a single possession, missing their best chance to turn the tide.
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Rutgers responded by going on a 12-2 run to take an insurmountable 13-point lead that the Nittany Lions never threatened to close. Hyatt exploded during the stretch, hitting two three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to put the Scarlet Knights over the top. They’d cruise from there, outscoring Penn State 26-9 in the final 13 minutes, keeping the Nittany Lions at an arm’s length while staying within reach of their lofty season-long goals.
Purdue has arguably their most challenging stretch of the season this week with a road game against Michigan and a home rematch with Michigan State in a four-day stretch. The Scarlet Knights will be watching intently as they prepare for a revenge game of their own against Iowa on Sunday.
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Brian Fonseca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.