During the previous three seasons, Rutgers has lost more than a few non-conference games against smaller programs. Losses to Drexel, William & Mary, Fairleigh Dickinson, St. Peter’s, and St. Francis (Pa) hurt the soul of every Rutgers basketball fan. With a steady diet of less heralded teams on the schedule this season, there has been hope that those days of head scratching losses are over under new head coach Steve Pikiell. This game brought back that sinking feeling that was too close for comfort.
Tonight was the first time all season that Rutgers really struggled against an inferior opponent that they should have been in control of from the opening tip. Instead of attacking the paint, Rutgers settled for way too many jump shots against the 2-3 zone of North Texas. It resulted in a difficult half of basketball to watch, as the Scarlet Knights finished the first half shooting 8-32 from the field for just 25% and a putrid 1-12 from three-point range for just 8%.
There were times Rutgers had solid ball movement and were able to get the ball to a big man in the middle of the zone. It's just they missed open shots or they settled, instead of driving to the rim. Patience was lacking and it resulted in the first half of basketball Rutgers has lost all season.
The only positive of the first half was seeing Deshawn Freeman, whose production has been stymied of late, bounced back from his zero rebound performance against Niagara with 8 boards at the break of this game. It certainly helped that the best frontcourt player on North Texas, Jeremy Combs, missed this game due to a setback after offseason ankle surgery. Still, Freeman must be a consistent force in the paint for this team to have any chance against more formidable opponents.
The positive take from this game is that Rutgers did come out in the second half like the way they should have started the game and took care of business. Progress is the goal this season and like I referenced above, in recent years, this is a game Rutgers would have lost. Instead, they improved their intensity level and attacked the rim on a more regular basis. Their defense was much improved as well.
Mike Williams, as he has all season so far, hit a big three-pointer that gave Rutgers a 37-32 lead with just under 14 minutes remaining in the game. It was just the second made shot behind the arc for Rutgers on the night on 15 attempts. Soon after, Williams sprinted down the court and blocked what looked like a sure layup for North Texas. A few moments later, he got out ahead on the break and slammed home a dunk after catching a Nigel Johnson pass in stride.
After North Texas hit a couple shots and cut the lead to 41-38, Williams came up with a huge offensive rebound and got the ball inside to CJ Gettys, who was fouled and made both free throws. It started what turned out to be a 20-4 run that effectively ended the game. Williams hit a big three that pushed the lead to 9 and was a spark during the run.
The good news despite the offensive struggles, Rutgers did show up on the defensive end and dominated the glass. They grabbed and finished the game with +25 margin. North Texas shot only 33% from the field and Candido Sa caused major problems, blocking 5 shots in the second half. He is quickly becoming the best rim defender that Rutgers has had since Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Hamady N’Diaye. He added 4 points and 6 rebounds, continuing his solid play off the bench.
Even though Rutgers struggled shooting tonight, there was balanced scoring again in this game. They were led by Deshawn Freeman, who put together his third double-double of the season, finishing with 13 points and 15 rebounds. He struggled from the field, shooting just 3-11, but was a solid 7-10 from the free throw line.
Williams finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks and did so many little things to help this team win the game. Nigel Johnson surged late and had a solid all-around game with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
Despite struggling with a 3-14 shooting night, Corey Sanders had 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. Also impressive, he had just 1 turnover. Issa Thiam and CJ Gettys finished with 8 points.
Progress is being made, although it hasn’t always been pretty. Still, the reality is that Rutgers has led by at least 18 points in all five wins this season. That’s a welcomed change from years past, when Rutgers surely would have lost one of these games. The resiliency of this team has been encouraging, as defense and rebounding continue to be the backbone of their success. The willingness to play together is also something we haven’t seen at this level in some time. It overcame a poor shooting night, which included just 36.5% from the field and a ugly 3-20 for 15% from behind the arc.
At the end of the day, this game was concerning at times, but Rutgers dominated the second half and won with ease. They will wake up on Thanksgiving with a 5-0 record. A win is a win and we’ll take it! Rutgers has a quick turnaround with a 1 p.m. matchup with Hartford on Friday afternoon. There can be no holiday hangover, which if there is one certainty so far this season, trust that coach Steve Pikiell will have this team ready.