Saturday, April 20

Jalen Pickett helps steady Penn State in second half of Big Ten Tournament win over Minnesota

Micah Shrewsberry saw an unsettled Penn State men’s basketball team in the early going Wednesday night. The Nittany Lions were playing faster than they were accustomed to against Minnesota, the first-year coach thought, and it manifested through poor screens, easy misses and other miscues.

Despite the mistakes, Penn State trailed Minnesota by four points at halftime in their first-round matchup in the Big Ten Tournament. As they have been all season, the Nittany Lions were in the game, and Shrewsberry knew his group often saved its best for the latter part of games. He wanted his defense from him to get it to that point if the team settled down.

It did, and then some. No. 11-seed Penn State downed No. 14-seed Minnesota, 60-51, to open the Big Ten Tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Wednesday night. The win sets up a third meeting this season between the Nittany Lions and No. 6-seed Ohio State on Thursday night.

“We just talked about really slowing down in the second half,” Shrewsberry said postgame. “If you look at us throughout the season, the last 10 minutes of the game was when we play our best offense. You get to that point and I feel like we know where exactly we’re attacking, what shots we want to get, how they’re guarding us and we really settle into the game, and hopefully our defense can keep us there until we get to that point. And it usually does. It usually does. I’d love for us to play a lot better early on, but as long as it takes clicking until we start, that’s what we usually do.”

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Read more: Penn State men’s basketball opens Big Ten Tournament with 60-51 win over Minnesota

Guard Jalen Pickett was a main catalyst for Penn State’s success in the second half. The senior scored a game-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, and 13 of those points came after halftime. I have also added seven rebounds and four assists.

Pickett, who transferred in from Siena, looked locked in during his Big Ten Tournament debut. He chattered after made baskets — he said he was talking to himself — and supplied a needed element of emotion and energy to the court.

“It’s important, just trying to go on to the next possession,” Pickett said. “I made a couple mistakes defensively, and you know Coach Shrews got on me and I’m better than that. Sometimes I get in my own head, so I got to let it go sometimes, but sometimes I use it as motivation and just keep going and keep pushing through.”

Pickett shot 5 of 6 in the second half and made both his 3-pointers. The ball was in his hands at key points, and he knew where it needed to go. Often times, it got to the spot, and Pickett or his teammates made something happen, like two 3-pointers for forward Seth Lundy that helped the Nittany Lions extend their lead.

On the season, Pickett is averaging 13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. During the regular season, he averaged nearly 14 points per game in conference play.

“He’s a good player,” Shrewsberry said. “No matter what level you come from or where you went to originally, if you can play, you can play. And he can play. He plays at his own pace. He gets where he wants to go. He makes tough shots. I have scores around the basket. They go under him, he steps back, he hits a 3. He makes the pass to John [Harrar] there late when he jumps up like he’s going to shoot and dumps it down to him. That’s savvy, that’s understanding the game, that’s understanding the situation. The guy doesn’t get rattled, and the guy never comes out of the game and he doesn’t complain one bit. It takes a lot of heart. He’s a competitor. He’s a warrior.”

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On the season, Pickett is averaging 37.1 minutes per game, and he played 40 minutes against Minnesota. He’ll likely have to go wire-to-wire against Ohio State on Thursday night. Despite this being the third meeting between the two teams, the Buckeyes are a bit more of an unfamiliar opponent for the Nittany Lions, who had played the Golden Gophers twice in the past month.

The two matchups against Ohio State came back on Dec. 5 and Jan. 16. Penn State lost both, though the latter was a five-point game and the former was a single-digit game with less than two minutes remaining. Much has changed since then. One thing that has remained consistent for much of the time? Pickett scored a season-high 23 points in the December meeting.

And if Penn State is going to extend its season, Pickett will need to be a key part of it.

“He’s a good player,” Shrewsberry said. “You look at leading scorers in our conference, I have averaged about 14. His name is in that list right in the middle. You look at blocks, you look at steals, you look at assists, you look at assist-to-turnover ratio, the guy’s all over the place in terms of what we do. He’s played that way pretty much the entire season. He was slow out of the gates, and he struggled a little bit early, but once he got comfortable, he’s played that way. He’s a good player.”

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Read more: Penn State men’s basketball forward John Harrar earns All-Big Ten honorable mention

Daniel Gallen covers Penn State for PennLive. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Follow PennLive’s Penn State coverage on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube.

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