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Subtle Defensive Change Paying Off In Dividends For Penn State Hoops

After finishing the first half on a tough scoring drought that allowed Rutgers back into the game Tuesday night, Micah Shrewsberry’s group totaled just four points in over six minutes of play to open the second.

In fact, outside of solid performances from Jalen Pickett, John Harrar, and Sam Sessoms, Penn State never seemed to truly get its footing on the offensive side of the ball on a consistent basis. In true Big Ten fashion, however, a gritty defensive effort was enough for the Nittany Lions to grab their third Big Ten win in less than two weeks.

Penn State’s defense forced Rutgers into 15 turnovers and an ugly 33.9% shooting from the field. The Nittany Lions didn’t do a whole lot of adjusting to force such offensive struggles for the Scarlet Knights. All it took, according to Shrewsberry, was a reinforced effort to get his players’ hands up on that side of the ball.

“How we play defense — we don’t turn people over,” Shrewsberry said postgame. “We’re safe. We’re solid. We’re gonna be in position every time. But there’s a difference between being in position and standing with your arms at your side, and being in position and standing there like you’re covering ground.”

That difference was clearly important to Penn State in its fourth game of the new year. Shrewsberry, his assistant coaches, and each player on the bench were all consistently willing the five Nittany Lions on the floor to keep their arms up wide on defense.

While he is a first-year head coach at this level, Shrewsberry has more than 20 years of experience coaching the game — including five with the Boston Celtics. The Indianapolis native utilized those high-level years alongside Brad Stevens to his advantage in his Rutgers preparations.

“I showed them clips, or two video screenshots, of our Celtics teams playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs two years in a row,” Shrewsberry said. “In the first one, Eric Bledsoe is bringing the ball down the court and there’s five guys all standing like this. Jayson Tatum’s in the opposite corner — 50 feet from the ball — and he’s standing there [with his arms up].

“Our guys have really bought into it…The Northwestern game I looked and they had six turnovers. It felt like 50, ’cause sometimes they drive by you and we’re getting our hands on the basketball and swipe it away from them.”

Including the Rutgers win, Penn State’s recent success was without a doubt kickstarted by a complete defensive effort. The group took on Indiana back on January 2 and squeaked out a three-point victory thanks to holding the Hoosiers to 58 points. The Nittany Lions stayed hot with a win over Northwestern and fell to then-No. 3 Purdue by just seven points at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.

It was hardly a banner defensive day for Shrewsberry’s group in that loss to the Boilermakers, but Tuesday’s bounce-back win helped illustrate Penn State’s ability to shut down capable conference opponents. The Scarlet Knights may not possess the same size and strength as Purdue, but Steve Pikiell’s squad entered the BJC on a four-game win steak, including a 93-65 win over Nebraska.

Rutgers’ recent success has been paced by veteran forward Ron Harper Jr. The senior entered Tuesday night averaging 16.3 points per game and put up at least 20 in his team’s last two victories. Seth Lundy was tasked with slowing down the star scorer, and the Philly native clearly did exactly what his team asked of him. Harper totaled just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting and committed three turnovers.

“At the start of the year, there probably wasn’t anybody in here that was waving the Seth Lundy All-Defensive team flag,” Shrewsberry said. “Seth Lundy has guarded the best player, or one of the best players, on every single team this year.”

Shrewsberry added that Lundy quite literally followed Harper throughout the night, and made sure whenever the Rutgers forward checked back into the game, Lundy was right there.

The head coach similarly credited Jalen Pickett for his defensive effort. While also managing to put up 15 points and three boards, the senior guard held Geo Baker to just seven of his own.

“Kudos to Jalen Pickett for guarding Geo Baker in the same way,” Shrewsberry said. “Those two are as scary as possible…Total team effort, total team effort…Now we gotta do it again.

“We’re gonna take a day off, but I don’t want to stop. I want to keep playing. I wish we could play tomorrow. I know our guys would be ready to guard, to fight, and they’re gonna be ready to do what needs to be done to win on Sunday.”

With a chance for revenge against No. 16 Ohio State on the horizon, the Nittany Lions will certainly need to continue to build on their defensive identity. For Shrewsberry, that extra effort and simple “hands up” change are enough to make him confident in his team against any opponent.

“We didn’t change anything defensively. All we changed was this,” Shrewsberry said. “Now it looks like I’m covering more ground. Now it looks like I’m in two different places at once. The more success you have at something, the more buy-in you get. Our guys have really taken hold of that, and it’s helped us defensively.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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