Penn State Hoops’ Sam Sessoms Bounces Back To Stardom Against Rutgers

Before Penn State men’s basketball hit the court for pregame warm-ups ahead of its matchup with red-hot Rutgers, Sam Sessoms stood alone, honing in on his jump shot and free-throw routine.

The locked-in senior guard posed as the only player on the floor before fans began to fill the Bryce Jordan Center stands, possibly in hopes of avenging his disappointing showing against No. 3 Purdue on Saturday.

Uncharacteristically, the Philadelphia native registered a pair of zeros in points and assists at the hands of the opportunistic Boilermakers. Instead, the isolation specialist earned himself a lengthy stint on Micah Shrewsberry’s bench after committing two costly turnovers in only seven minutes of action.

Sessoms’ recent second-half absence as a result of poor play fueled a 17-point, 7-for-10 shooting clinic at the expense of the Scarlet Knights in the Nittany Lions’ latest conference victory. Despite starting the contest off the bench, Sessoms channeled his first-year head coach’s criticism into consistent spurts of offensive explosiveness.

“I got on him on Saturday,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s hard to take when you’re somebody that’s been counted on, when you’re somebody that scores a lot. When you play [about] nine minutes, there’s two things you can do: you can go in the locker room and be a locker room lawyer…or you can go back and fix it, and you can take ownership. That says a lot about his character, who he is as a person, [and] his resiliency to just bounce back and play.”

Tuesday’s showing didn’t serve as the first time Sessoms avenged a previous game defined by on-court inconsistencies. Last season, the star guard rallied the Nittany Lions into a one-possession battle against a talented Seton Hall squad, but Jim Ferry’s reeling group ultimately fell 98-92 in overtime. The budding point guard struggled behind 2-for-8 shooting down the stretch, including a crucial missed free throw with under a minute remaining.

In response to the crushing defeat, Sessoms thrived off the bench in his next appearance, a date with tournament-bound Virginia Tech. In 24 minutes, he rattled off a modest 10 points but shot nearly 60% from the field in a convincing 75-55 triumph.

Regardless of setbacks, Sessoms’ perseverance and adopted street-ball offensive style have never wavered in the face of criticism. If anything, the feedback has allowed him to reflect on previous miscues and revert back to his commanding presence as an offensive focal point.

“I just knew I had to step it up,” Sessoms said. “The game versus Purdue, I wasn’t on the bench angry because I knew I wasn’t giving my best effort. I was just supporting my teammates on the bench, but I knew next game I had to go out there and play as hard as I can, and that’s what I did. My mentality was to play hard [enough] to win us the game.”

Through nearly a half-season of output, Penn State is a different team when the frontcourt combination of Sessoms and Jalen Pickett both score in double figures. In seven games when the two seniors have rattled off 10 or more points-a-piece, the Nittany Lions hold a solid 5-2 record.

While Sessoms’ increased success rate from beyond the arc has played a role in his heightened scoring production, his ability to attack opposing defenses off the dribble has proven to be his most potent weapon. When the crafty point guard is able to invade the paint through pick-and-roll action, Shrewsberry believes that’s when his team’s offense reaches its most dangerous self.

“We need him,” Shrewsberry said about Sessoms. “The pressure he puts on the defense, the spacing that our guys try to play with, give him room to drive the basketball. It helps our offense when you can play with [Sessoms and Pickett], multiple guys that can play off pick-and-rolls, the better our offense will be, and tonight, we got to see both of them out there together. Both of them clicked at different times throughout the game.”

Following Penn State’s third conference victory, Sessoms currently sits as the third-leading scorer on Shrewsberry’s team, despite beginning the last five matchups as the sixth man to see the floor. Although the lack of immediate minutes for one of the Nittany Lions’ most productive players may seem puzzling, it serves as a testament to a vital increase in depth cultivated through the opening span of conference play.

With the return of Jevonnie Scott, Shrewsberry extended his rotation to nine-deep versus Rutgers, even without the services of Jaheam Cornwall. The return of a full-strength roster within the teeth of the Big Ten schedule should only improve the Nittany Lions’ chances at a receiving back-door tournament bid, but the group will reach its potential only if each individual plays their own, unique role.

For Sessoms, his job is to continue being the same hard-nosed, gritty scorer and facilitator he’s been throughout his Penn State career. If his future performances look anything similar to the plethora of ways he torched the Scarlet Knights, Shrewsberry may be on his way to ending the program’s 11-year tournament drought in his initial campaign.

“Coach Shrews tells me when I get in [that] he wants me to just attack and look to score first, to find my scoring opportunities, [and] make the right passes,” Sessoms said. “I honestly just came into the game and [was] getting downhill until someone stopped me. If they didn’t, I was going to shoot.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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