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Penn State Hoops Showcases Resilience In Valiant Fight Against Georgia Tech At Madison Square Garden

Last week, Penn State men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades picked up his first signature win at the helm of the Nittany Lions in a defining come-from-behind victory over one-loss Ohio State. 

Rhoades’ bunch erased an 18-point second-half deficit, exploding for 54 points over the final 20 minutes of regulation. The Buckeyes produced just three conversions from the field with 4:10 remaining, putting the Nittany Lions’ defensive resiliency on full display. 

Similarly, Penn State tallied 13 steals throughout its 40-minute track meet with Georgia Tech at Madison Square Garden, but Rhoades’ lack of front-court depth once again showed its teeth underneath in the last-second mishap. 

The Yellow Jackets secured 54 rebounds compared to just 32 grabs off the glass from Penn State, attributing to 24 second-chance points for Damon Staudimire’s crew. Despite size discrepancies and lack of relief for center Qudus Wahab on the low block, Rhoades praised his unit’s resilience following the 82-81 non-conference setback. 

“I was really proud of our guys for getting back in it there late,” Rhoades said. “We found some plays late in the game to win the game, [we] just didn’t win the game. That’s how it goes, but I’m super proud of our guys.”

With 10:06 to go, the Nittany Lions trailed by three scores after guard Kowacie Reeves extended Georgia Tech’s edge to nine points, largely due to its physicality edge around the key. However, Penn State failed to give in for the second straight week.

Puff Johnson and Co. emphatically halted a 13-2 run, as the North Carolina transfer finished the second half and overtime with a 6-for-12 clip from the field after being held scoreless in the first frame. In crunch time with just over four minutes left in the back-and-forth battle, the Moon Township, Pennsylvania, native nailed a crucial three-pointer from the top of the key to bring the deficit to only five points. 

While Johnson could’ve adopted a pass-first approach after beginning the first 28 minutes scoreless, the fearless shooter continued to trust his green-light approach. 

“This is a team that’s going to fight no matter what the scoreboard says [and] no matter what other people say,” Johnson said. “It’s about the guys in the locker room that know what we’re worth. We know that we’re not just going to lay down.”

Aside from Johnson’s late-game production, veteran staple Ace Baldwin Jr. played arguably his most complete bout of the campaign despite the loss. In Baldwin’s final year with VCU, the primary ball handler averaged 5.8 assists per game, good for the second-most among all Atlantic 10 commodities. 

But through 10 matchups with the Nittany Lions, the Baltimore product hadn’t garnered more than five assists in a single matchup. Since transferring to Happy Valley, his per-game average has dipped by more than 37%. 

Against Georgia Tech, Baldwin ran the offense efficiently at the one slot by eclipsing seven assists, largely helping Kanye Clary generate a 23-point outburst on nearly a 53% success rate from the floor. 

If Baldwin can remain steady as a viable scoring weapon coupled with his reemergence as a shot creator for perimeter counterparts, Rhoades knows his cohort will continue to eventually stack close calls into hard-earned triumphs. 

“We’re trying to build it the right way,” Rhoades said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. We had a Georgia Tech team beat, but we didn’t beat them. We’re going to learn from it and get better.”

With a 5-6 record clouding the Nittany Lions’ growth through the season’s opening month, both Rhoades and Johnson know the unit’s record serves as a poor reflection of the team’s chemistry ascension.

Heading into the New Year, Penn State possesses just two non-conference contests left on the docket. Before entering consistent Big Ten play, it would be easy for league foes to overlook Rhoades’ group from a statistical standpoint. 

Just as Johnson failed to crumble after a poor first half, his resurgence ended with a double-digit output and a 13-point individual edge while on the court. 

Similarly, the sharpshooting guard feels his squad has the ability to make a comparable turnaround with almost three-quarters of the regular season looming in the balance. 

“I mean, people might look at us that we might be an easy opponent, but that’s not how we are and how we view ourselves,” Johnson said. “… No matter what the score is, we’re trying to fight every possession.”

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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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