With a little less than 15 minutes remaining in Sunday night’s game, Penn State cut Michigan State’s lead to 10. It was the closest the Nittany Lions had been since there was nine minutes left to play in the first half.
Hoping to keep the run going and pull within single digits, Pat Chambers inserted talented freshman Rasir Bolton. Even though Bolton played just five minutes up to that point, he’s one of the few dynamic offensive players the Nittany Lions have.
On his first defensive possession, Bolton lost his man, Spartan sharpshooter Matt McQuaid, and allowed a wide open 3-pointer. A few seconds later, Bolton got free for an open 3-pointer of his own, but missed. Then on the following possession, Bolton chased McQuaid around a screen, but didn’t get a hand up in time and McQuaid knocked down another 3-pointer.
Michigan State once again led by 16. Any momentum Penn State had was gone and Chambers saw enough. He called timeout and pulled Bolton. He didn’t reenter the game.
Things are quickly spiralling out of control for Rasir Bolton.
The player who showed off his potential with three games with 20-plus points in the nonconference has yet to reach double digits since the calendar turned to 2019 and things don’t seem to be getting any better.
Bolton played just six minutes against Michigan State and missed both of the shots he took. He’s now shooting just 38 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range.
In the team’s last four games, Bolton has made just 6-of-28 shots (21.4 percent) and has more turnovers (10) than assists (7).
Fellow freshman Myreon Jones, whose team-best 18 points in the upset win over Virginia Tech feels like a year ago, has struggled as well. He’s got just three points in the last four games and just eight points in the team’s six Big Ten games. He was scoreless against the Spartans and missed all five of his shots.
“They’re shooting the ball well in practice,” Chambers said after the loss to Michigan State. “I don’t think the lights are too bright for them.”
So, what is it that’s causing Bolton and Jones to struggle this much? Have they hit the proverbial “freshman wall?”
“Yeah, maybe,” Chambers admitted.
“At this point –– middle of January –– this is something they’ve never experienced before. We’ve gotta make sure they have confidence and that’s my job,” Chambers added. “I’m going to sit and spend time with them and work with them mentally and physically.”
Bolton has been in and out of the starting lineup this season and even when it seems like he’s starting to find his stride, he has a performance like the one against Wisconsin in which he went 2-for-10 from the field and just 1-of-6 from 3-point range.
At this point, Chambers is running out of ways to utilize Bolton, but he’s going to keep trying because he doesn’t have another option.
“I’m trying to manage him right now [and] put him in the best position to be successful,” Chambers said. “We all struggle sometimes.”
Against the No. 6 team in the nation, Penn State was once again getting zero production from its bench.
Chambers knew he wasn’t going to be able to outscore Tom Izzo’s team so he put in freshman Kyle McCloskey, a freshman who transfered from Villanova after spending the first year of his college career playing football.
“[McCloskey’s] been relentless in practice for over a month,” Chambers said. “He’s been in my sheet ready to go if I need him.”
On Sunday night, he needed McCloskey.
The Delaware County native only attempted one shot in his 18 minutes of game action, but he’s not in there for his offense. McCloskey is in there to play hard and “grind” –– a word Chambers said several times after the game.
“We needed to play with some toughness,” Chambers said. “If we’re not going to score the ball, we’re going to grind it out. I’m going to put guys out there who are going to compete at the highest level. I felt like Kyle did that.”
McCloskey certainly looked active in the first meaningful game action of his career. He grabbed a few rebounds, took a few charges and displayed a genuine effort on the defensive end of the floor.
“That’s the Kyle I see every day in practice. He gives 110 percent effort,” Josh Reaves said. “He was just out there competing and out there trying. We just gotta have people out there grinding and that’s what he does. He’ll run through a brick wall for anyone on this team.”