Rutgers lost in about the worst way possible tonight, blowing a 16 point second half lead, losing in gut wrenching fashion in the closing seconds. After starting the second half on a 12-3 run, building their lead to 45-29, the wheels started to come off. St. John's rattled off 7 points in a row, ultimately outscoring Rutgers 32-14 the final 14 minutes of the game. Felix Balamou, just back from his suspension after being cleared this afternoon, gave the Red Storm the spark they needed to pull off the comeback. He had 8 points, 11 rebounds including 5 offensive, and 7 assists. Rutgers got sloppy and rushed their shots on offense, letting St. John's get back into the game.
Still, when Bishop Daniels drove the lane and Ibrahima Diallo tipped in his miss, Rutgers led 58-53 with 3:24 to play. That was their last field goal of the game and St. John's took the lead for good on Ron Mvouika's two made free throws, putting the Red Storm up 60-59. After Balimou missed a free throw with 16 seconds left, Daniels brought the ball up the court, only to get bumped and lose the ball at mid-court. Corey Sanders grabbed it and started to dribble forward when he was tripped and fell, losing the ball. St. John's Christian Jones stole it and drew the foul. It was two badly missed calls by the officials, as announcing legend Bill Rafferty confirmed on the FS1 telecast. It was unfortunate and brought back painful memories of the controversial loss to St. John's back in 2011 in the Big East tournament.
Regardless, Rutgers still had a chance to win after Jones went 1-2 from the line and they got the ball back with 6 seconds to play. Corey Sanders brought the ball up the court in a less urgent pace than needed, finding Daniels at the top of the key. Unfortunately, the clock expired before Daniels shot the three and made it. It was a good second plus late, and the collapse was complete.
Ultimately, Rutgers lost their balance on offense and didn't generate many high percentage shots down the stretch. The loss wasted the best performance of Daniels career at Rutgers, who without him would not have even been in this game. He scored 21 points, 14 of which came in the first half, as well 8 rebounds and 5 steals. He shot 10-17 from the field and played like a senior, putting the team on his back for long stretches of the game. However, aside from Foreman scoring all of his 9 points in the first half and a brief spurt by Deshawn Freeman in the second half, Daniels had little help on the scoring end.
The battle of Federico Mussini and Sanders displayed moments for both players, but also showed they are freshman with a lot to learn. Mussini struggled most of the night, shooting 3-14 from the field with zero assists and 4 turnovers. He did finish with 13 points and 7 rebounds, but was on the bench for most of St. John's comeback. Sanders pressured him on defense and ran him ragged at times. On the flip side, Sanders had an uneven performance, appearing tight for periods and making rookie mistakes. Early in the second half, he missed a bad shot and then committed a bad foul, compounding the first mistake. While he was effective driving and dishing at times, especially finding Mike Williams for two open three-pointers on the wing, Sanders rushed his own shot too often. He lacked the proper urgency needed on the last play of the game, committing the ultimate sin of running out of time before his team could get the final shot off. He finished with 5 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. The potential is obvious for Sanders and he will learn from this game. Patience is a must with this team, especially Sanders.
Rutgers downfall can be partly attributed to getting in foul trouble in the second half, with Ibrahima Diallo fouling out and four other players having at least three fouls each. Rutgers got out of rhythm and never recovered. St. John's was in the bonus on the foul line mid-way through the second half, although they shot just 13-24 for the game. Sadly, Rutgers shot worse from the line at 5-14. Sanders in particular struggled, shooting just 1-6 and missed three crucial free throws in the final minutes.
The frustrating part of the loss is Rutgers shot much better than St. John's overall, shooting 42% from the field versus 32% for the Red Storm. Rutgers also improved their three-point shooting, connecting on 4-10 for the night. Williams got hot after hitting a three to end the first half, then connecting on two more early in the second half. Rutgers also won the turnover battle, forcing 15 turnovers while committing 12.
This game was there for the taking and they fell short finishing off their opponent. Growing pains have to be expected this season, and this team will need to learn how to close games out. At the first TV timeout of the second half, the cameras showed Eddie pleading with the team to crash the boards and be aggressive from the perimeter. Rutgers was up 42-27 at the time and Eddie was pleading with his players to keep pushing the gas pedal. Unfortunately, it's a lesson the team had to learn the hard way by losing a game they let slip away. Bottom line, this team has shown flashes of promise but has a long way to go. With three more games in the next six days, they must regroup quickly and not let this loss magnify.