Coming into this game, the hope was Rutgers would have a good chance to win the battle on the glass against DePaul. After grabbing 56 rebounds in their last game against Drexel, the most in a game for the program since 1992, it was obvious that head coach Steve Pikiell’s emphasis on rebounding the entire preseason was starting to pay off.
Boy, did it ever tonight, as Rutgers completely dominated DePaul the entire game on the boards, finishing with a 46-27 rebounding edge in the game. While the offense struggled most of the night, both with turnovers and shooting, their relentless effort in grabbing missed shots made up for those issues. Rutgers also had an impressive 18-10 edge in offensive rebounds and scored 17 second chance points. With both teams shooting at 39% from the field on the night, rebounding was a big difference in the 66-59 victory for Rutgers.
After leading 33-26 at the half, Rutgers continued playing hard and took control right out of the gate, something they struggled to do all of last season. With Rutgers up 40-28 after the under-16 timeout, Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson imposed their will on this game. Sanders drove to the rim under control and finished in the paint, followed by two consecutive steals by Johnson, leading to layups for himself and Corey. It spurred a 14-4 run and put Rutgers in the lead by a whopping 22 points with 10 minutes to play in the game. It was divine, but this team is young and inexperienced, which showed up down the stretch.
DePaul was sparked late by the play of Eli Cain, who did all he could to get his team back in the game. He scored 7 straight points down the stretch and finished with a game high 24 points. However, Preseason All-Big East second team selection Billy Garrett Jr. struggled mightily in this game, shooting just 1-11 from the field and finishing with only 5 points.
With Rutgers leading 60-50 with 3:30 to play, Corey Sanders drove the length of the floor and found Deshawn Freeman open for a dunk that pretty much sealed the victory. DePaul certainly made it uncomfortable in the closing minutes, but Rutgers held on for the 7 point win. Although the game was closer than it should have been after being in the lead by as much as 22 points, this team is still learning how to win. But they are still winning while learning to do so and that is key.
The guard play was something to watch for in this game and Mike Williams starred for the second time in three games off the bench tonight. He was sensational, playing with poise and a veteran demeanor, never trying to do too much. He scored 14 points and tied Deshawn Freeman for a team leading 9 rebounds. Whenever Rutgers needed a big bucket, he was there scrapping his way to the rim. Corey Sanders led the team with 15 points, along with 2 assists and 2 blocks. He also played great defense against Garrett Jr. and played with high intensity, but was mostly under control. The returning backcourt from last season were the only two players to score in double figures for Rutgers on the night.
Nigel Johnson struggled in the first half, but played better after the break and finished with 7 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Freeman had 9 points to go along with those 9 boards, falling just short of his third consecutive double-double of the season. Although CJ Gettys stats were modest, his nimbleness and ability to do the little things on the court are proving to be so valuable for this team. He finished with 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Jonathan Laurent added 6 points and 6 rebounds.
The most encouraging part of tonight was that the real difference was Rutgers simply wanted this game more than DePaul. They played with more passion, energy, and were more active the entire game. Rutgers played with an extra hop in their step and were playing hard for each other. It wasn't pretty a lot of the time, but it was a beautiful team win that featured grit, guile, and great effort.
They were focused both on the defensive end and at the free throw line, where they shot an impressive 79% after hitting 21 of their first 22 attempts. That is a big improvement from the first two games. Overall, after a tight start, Rutgers led for over 32 minutes of this game.
For progress to be made this season, so many steps need to be made due to Rutgers starting so low after last year. It was their first road win since December 28th, 2014 when they beat Monmouth 59-58 on a Myles Mack jumper at the buzzer. The win means Rutgers has started a season with a 3-0 record for the first time since 2008-2009. These are all achievements that need to be crossed off the list and they finally are.
The success experienced so far needs to be measured, as Rutgers has yet to play a truly good team. There is plenty coach Pikiell can take from this game and task his players to improve on. However, this was a great team win on the road against a Big East team. With Niagara next at home on Sunday, Rutgers has a real chance to continue building momentum early on in this season. After a painful past three plus years for this program, especially with last season on the court, there is certainly a lot to be happy about at the start of the Steve Pikiell era! Rutgers is 3-0!