Rutgers had the difficult task of playing two games in less than 48 hours, sandwiched around the Thanksgiving holiday. The strong effort they have produced both with defense and rebounding through five games wasn’t near the same level today. Hartford shot a blistering 65% from the field in the second half and led by as many as 13 points with five minutes left in the game. Even so, their will to win and increased intensity down the stretch led to Rutgers pulling out a big win at home, completing a 6-0 start to the season.
With the game tied at 75 and Rutgers having the ball, point guard Corey Sanders drove to the rim and missed a shot in traffic. However, 7 foot center C.J. Gettys grabbed the offensive rebound and made his putback to give Rutgers a 2 point lead with 7 seconds to play. Hartford turned it over on the other end and Nigel Johnson wisely threw the ball up high into the air as the clock ran out. The home crowd exploded and the miraculous comeback was complete.
Click to view the game winning shot on the tweet below or click here.
Captain Deshawn Freeman came up huge in this game, leading Rutgers with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He shot 9-13 from the field and played a team high 32 minutes. However, it was his leadership that turned the tide in this game. With Rutgers down 10 points late in the second half, Freeman asserted himself in the huddle. Head coach Steve Pikiell had this to say in his post game presser:
When we came out of a huddle and D (Freeman) said “I got it”, we were down 10 and I felt pretty good. You don’t get that often from players. I love when players, especially a player like him with a double double tonight, says ‘coach, we got it, we got it.’ They did. They wanted to give me a heart attack, but they got it.
On the Gettys play down the stretch, Pikiell said:
CJ was great at the end. He was a facilitator. We got him the ball in the middle of the zone and he made the right reads while D was able to finish a lot of plays. So, good leadership and a good team win.
Rutgers started today’s game against Hartford sluggish and let one of the worst teams in the America East lead the game for most of the second half. While the team did move the ball well around the 2-3 zone of Hartford at times, too many players were rushing and looked out of sync. There were at least three travelling violations called against Rutgers in the opening frame.
They seemed to have tired legs as well, something that was a concern due to the quick turnaround from Wedneday night’s game. They shot just 5 of 12 from the free throw line in the first half. They did improve some in the second half, but still left a lot of points off the board, shooting just 17-30 for 57% from the line for the game. Despite it all, Rutgers never gave up and showed a lot of character in this win.
Hartford was able to stay with Rutgers on the glass in the first half, as the Scarlet Knights only had a +1 margin at the break. However, they grabbed important rebounds when they needed them down the stretch and finished the game with 39 rebounds, a season low, but still a +9 margin over Hartford.
They did open the game with a 16-8 lead, only to let Hartford go open 10-1 run until CJ Gettys finished a 3-point play with 5:03 left in the first half, giving Rutgers the 20-18 lead. It was a dogfight the rest of the half, with the score tied at 27 at the break. Rutgers fought for their undefeated lives the entire second half.
On the first possession after the break, Corey Sanders found Issa Thiam in the corner on an inbounds pass and the wiry freshman connected from behind the arc for the first time in the game, after an 0-3 first half. He then responded with another deep ball the following possession and then grabbed an offensive board. However, Hartford kept battling and the score was tied at 37 with 16:43 to play in the game. Issa continued his hot shooting in the second half, hitting another three to give Rutgers a 41-37 lead. He finished with 11 points and was 3 for 8 from three-point range on the game. Issa has now made multiple shots from deep in five of the first six games of his college career. Regarding his confidence level behind the arc, he had this to say to On The Banks after the game:
After the break the coaches told me to keep shooting the ball. Putting hard work in on my shot gives me confidence. I keep working in the gym and on my shot. My teammates trust me to keep shooting and that’s what I want to do.
Still, Hartford was making what seemed like almost every shot from every spot on the floor until the last 5 minutes of the game. Down 70-57, Rutgers cut the lead to six after a Freeman steal led to a Sanders three-point play. After another foul in transition, Sanders drove to the rim, found Freeman who delivered with another three-point play, bringing the score to 72-67 with a little over three minutes to play. After a huge three by Mike Williams to cut the lead to 2 with 2 minutes to play. Nigel Johnson forced a turnover on the inbounds play after a timeout. The RAC was going crazy and it just felt like Rutgers couldn’t lose at that point. Cue CJ Gettys and the comeback was complete.
The win sealed the first 6-0 start for the program since the 1975-1976 season, when that team went undefeated through the entire regular season schedule and made the Final Four. Any delusion of this team being anywhere close to that level should be ended immediately. Pikiell was asked about how he assesses this team through the six game start and said this:
We have a long way to go. That’s where we are. We have a lot of room for improvement, which is the exciting thing. I think we’re like 55 percent of where I want to be defensively. It’s hard when you play four games in a nine day span, you really can't improve in some of the things from last game because you're right on to prep for the next game. It’s been a heck of stretch here and now we can devour some film and get them all in the training room tomorrow to take care of their bodies. We’ll get better. This group will get better. When you continue with leadership and continue to rebound, good things can happen.
I couldn't come up with a better way to say it than from the head coach himself. Rutgers has five much needed days before their next game, a road trip to Miami (4-1), as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. How good this team really is will be much more clear after that game. For now, let’s enjoy an incredible comeback win, a satisfying 6-0 start, despite the competition, and the fact that RAC felt like the old days again today.