‘Tonight, It Was Good Enough’: Penn State Hoops Falling Into Place At Right Time
Two blowout losses in the last two weeks against premier Big Ten programs foreshadowed that a cold and snowy night in State College wasn’t going to get any warmer when No. 11 Wisconsin rolled into town.
But Mike Rhoades and Penn State men’s basketball had other plans by handing the Badgers their first loss in Big Ten play with an 87-83 victory late Tuesday night.
Before Tuesday, Penn State had yet to play a full 40 minutes of good basketball. There have been some highs and plenty of lows through the first two and a half months of the season. Rhoades and his staff expected bumps along the way when he took the job last March and had to construct an entirely new basketball team by the end of spring.
“The first couple of months on the job was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career, putting a team together,” Rhoades said. “And then you get the team and you want it to work perfectly because you worked so hard, but it doesn’t go that way.”
Some of that hard work and those long days in the office paid off with the upset victory over the Badgers. It was a monumental win for this year’s team and for the program as a whole. It was only the fourth-ever victory over Wisconsin in Penn State men’s basketball history.
Penn State could’ve thrown in the towel following its last-place finish in the ESPN Events Invitational or after its embarrassing performance at home against Bucknell, but the Nittany Lions didn’t.
“There’s more games to be played and coach [Rhoades] tells us all the time to just stick together,” Ace Baldwin Jr. said.
Baldwin and the team kept showing up to the gym every day and continued to put in the work. Some of that adversity they faced helped them knock off the No. 11-ranked Badgers.
“Next play mentality is what we talked about all the time, and I just thought we played with clear minds and we didn’t allow adversity or a comeback,” Rhoades said. “I think Kanye [Clary] and Ace [Baldwin] led the way with that. And other guys stepped up.”
After the game, Rhoades and his dual point guards talked about how they continue to grow together on the court and off the court. As the team becomes closer, results seem to follow.
Baldwin and the rest of the leaders on the team were behind the eight-ball when it came to building chemistry with one another. By mid-January, it feels like the team is finally learning how to play together.
The Nittany Lions’ .500 record shows how each night on the court is a challenge. There have been times when they haven’t been up to the challenge, but what makes Rhoades a good coach is that he knows how to handle the loss and turn the page. That’s the lesson he hopes to instill in his team.
“If you’re a true competitor, you show up the next day and go to work. So you know, I’m not gonna beat them down…work them really hard and love them harder; good days and bad days, no matter what,” Rhoades said.
There have been moments during this season when the effort of five guys on the court was called into question. There have been games when it didn’t look like the team got off the bus to play. But that comes with a long, grueling season, and it’s the demonstration of growing pains of building a program as a first-year coach.
“I know I’m not going to quit. I know our guys are not going to quit. We’re not going to make excuses,” Rhoades said. “There’s been a lot of nights not good enough to win games. Tonight, it was good enough.”
After the fans left the court and the majority of the fans in the arena stopped celebrating and departed, the smiles and joy from Rhoades and his players persevered.
Rhoades knows it’s still going to be hard and that Big Ten opponents will continue to test his team’s mentality just as much as it does physically. It never will be easy to win games, but for Rhoades and his team, that’s what makes winning so special.
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