The bench production has been a major story so far this season and today was no exception. Led by Nigel Johnson, Mike Williams, and freshman Eugene Omoruyi, the Rutgers bench out scored their starters 42-36 in this game. The threesome did more than just score though, as they also dished out 10 of the team’s 16 assists and nearly a third of the total team’s rebounds. It was the reason Rutgers cruised to a solid victory down the stretch, winning 78-65. Rutgers is now 4-0 on the season and more than halfway to last season’s victory total.
On the bench play overall, Pikiell had this to say in his post game presser:
I’m just so proud of the team. They’ve accepted roles. It’s such an important part of being a good basketball team. Having guys ready to play. I didn’t love the energy out of our starting lineup today. We brought Nigel and Mike and they gave us tremendous minutes. Candido gave us good minutes. And then in the second half, having Eugene, another guy ready to play, he was awesome. So, it bodes well. It gives us options. These guys have embraced it, they’ve been really good in their roles and it's made us a good team.
Nigel Johnson made several athletic drives to the rim and finished under control time after time. He also showcased his shooting ability, shooting 2-3 from three-point range, as well as a couple mid-range jumpers. His performance resulted in the highest scoring output of any Rutgers player this season, finishing with 20 points on 9-14 shooting from the field. However, he played a great all-around game, leading the team with 5 assists while committing only 1 turnover. He added 4 rebounds, proving what a complete player he has become. After the game, Nigel had this to say about coming off the bench and leading this team to victory:
My whole thing is that at the end of the day I am a basketball player. My job is to come in, whenever I come in there, to do what I do and help us to win. The whole starting versus coming off the bench thing, at the end of the day you’ve got to produce and that’s what I focus on.
Mike Williams also continues to give this team a big lift off the bench. He sparked a run late in the first half after diving for a loose ball and he found Deshawn Freeman, who drove the whole length of the court and finished with a layup. Williams also continued to make shots behind the arc, hitting 2 of 6 on the day. He finished the game with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists. Williams had this to say after the game:
I feel like I’ve matured a lot since I came here. I may have felt differently about it my freshman year, but now I feel like it’s bigger than that. You have to play and support your teammates and can make an impact regardless of when you come into the game. It only matters how you produce once you’re in there.
Freshman Eugene Omoruyi made an impact in the second half, playing with energy and giving this team a boost when Niagara was knocking down shots. He exited the game at the 10 minute mark to a big ovation from the home crowd. Pikiell said this about his play:
At halftime, I said we need toughness and we need energy, so the first words that came out of my mouth was that we were going to play Eugene. Fortunately, he got in and brought that exactly for the team. He gave us a great second half defensively. He was a stat stuffer there and exactly what we needed. Again, I didn't like the energy of our starters and the energy we were playing with. We needed to get that off of our bench and he and Nigel brought that.
Omoruyi finished with 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists and was serenaded with a big ovation from the home crowd after exiting the game at one point in the second half.
Although Niagara was hitting some tough shots from the behind the arc the entire game, Rutgers didn't waiver and ultimately wore down the Purple Eagles. Despite shooting 8-16 from three-point range, Rutgers held Niagara to just 31% from the field in this game. The game was still a little too close for comfort in the opening minutes of the second half.
After hitting on their first two attempts from behind the arc after the break, Niagara took a 42-41 lead with 14:38 left in the game. At that point, they were 7-13 from behind the arc, including connecting on one shot a good 25 feet away from the rim. Rutgers responded with 7 straight points, sparked by a Nigel Johnson three-pointer, forcing Niagara tocall a timeout. They continued to pressure Niagara in the halfcourt on defense and completed a 16-0 run to lead 57-42 with about 10 minutes left in the game. It seemed it would be smooth sailing from there, but Rutgers took a step back with mental mistakes that resulted in three technical fouls called against them.
The 16-0 run was ended after a careless technical foul on Deshawn Freeman and Niagara connecting on both free throws, then scoring on the next possession. However, Corey Sanders ran into more trouble due to Some verbal sparring, both with the opposition and the referees.
A few minutes before Freeman’s technical, Corey Sanders picked up a dead ball technical foul, along with Niagara’s Dwayne Pow, as a timeout was being called. Corey was at midcourt waiting to check into the game. The fouls offset but it was also completely unnecessary, as the call was made due to some verbal back and forth between the two players. Then a few minutes after Freeman, Sanders apparently disputed a call from the ref and was assessed his second technical foul, forcing his ejection from the game. He urged the crowd and his teammates to finish strong, but it was a disappointing exit for the supremely talented guard.
Those are the kind of mistakes that cannot happen in Big Ten play or Rutgers will pay dearly. Fortunately, even though it did help Niagara chip into the lead, Rutgers was well enough in command for it not to make a difference in this game. Coach Pikiell was asked about Corey’s ejection after the game and had this to say:
As a team we have to stop refereeing the game. Corey and everyone has to play basketball, we are not refs. When you try to ref you get into trouble.
After Sanders ejection, Nigel Johnson finished with a highlight reel dunk, but celebrated too long with teammate Candido Sa, allowing for Niagara to push the ball down the floor. Again, they didn't pay for it in this game, but Pikiell went ballistic on the sidelines. This team is still learning to win and you can be certain Pikiell and the staff will drill that fact into them after this game.
The real story of this game was the continued strong play off the bench from guards Nigel Johnson and Mike Williams. They are veteran players on a young and inexperienced team. Their maturity and poise was invaluable in helping Rutgers win this game. It was the type of afternoon in which Rutgers easily could have fallen apart and lost last season. However, this team is really playing for each other and it’s a new day in Piscataway. Rutgers basketball is 4-0 for the first time since the 2000-2001 season. They will be back at it on Wednesday night at home against North Texas.