Rutgers came into this game undefeated, but were 15 point underdogs on the road against a top tier ACC team in Miami. They now head home with their first loss of the season, as the ‘Canes defeated the Scarlet Knights by the score of 73-61. However, while the result was disappointing, there were several positive takeaways from this game. But before we get to those, let’s start with what didn’t go well.
Miami dominated the glass all night, resulting in a +14 rebounding margin and causing the lowest production of the season for Rutgers, which grabbed only 30 boards in the game. Rutgers struggled mightily finishing near the rim, missing a bunch of layups and having 8 shots blocked in the game. Miami shot 48.1% from the field and Rutgers shot a season low 36.5%. Aside from three field goals behind the arc, every other basket Miami made in the game was in the paint. Miami also made Rutgers pay from the free throw line, connecting on 18 of 22 shots for 81%. Basically, the ‘Canes beat Rutgers at their own game and proved this team has a long way to go with their interior play against better competition. It’s certainly an area of concern once the schedule shifts to the rough and tumble Big Ten.
Despite all the negatives, the biggest takeaway from the loss is that Rutgers continued to fight, scratch, and claw the entire 40 minutes of the game. After a team that was routinely blown out in the first half of games last season, coach Pikiell has been preaching for a full effort for all 40 minutes. Although Rutgers struggled on offense for long stretches, they never once quit. Remember, after last year’s 7-25 campaign, this season is all about progress in year one with head coach Steve Pikiell at the helm. Tonight was one of those times that a lot of positives can come out of a loss. Rutgers would have lost this game by 40 points last season.
When Anthony Lawrence slammed home a dunk to give Miami a 25-10 lead with ten plus minutes left in the first half, it was fair to wonder if Rutgers would recover at all in this game. The ‘Canes held a rebounding edge of 11-2 early, as their athleticism and size was overwhelming the Scarlet Knights. After Deshawn Freeman had a shot near the rim blocked and Miami had the ball in the halfcourt, it was looking bleak. Mike Williams, a constant spark off the bench this season, took matters into his own hands by stealing the ball, finding backcourt mate Nigel Johnson, who found Williams for the layup. That started an impressive 18-9 run to cut the lead to 6 at the half. Progress.
The defense of Rutgers forced Miami into 19 turnovers in the game, as the 2-3 zone of the Scarlet Knights caused problems for significant stretches. Rutgers had 12 steals on the night to just 7 for the ‘Canes. They were diving on the floor and fought for loose balls. Although they were undermanned, their collective effort kept them from getting blown out. Progress.
After drawing within 4 points of Miami early in the second half, Rutgers appeared a bit shell shocked and their defense softened, resulting in a 17-0 run by the ‘Canes. However, they never gave up and were yet again sparked by junior guard Mike Williams, who continues to be a revelation this season. He continues to embrace his new role off the bench and connected on back to back three-pointers to snap Rutgers out of their funk. While a miraculous comeback was not in the cards, seeing this team work the lead down to 10 and pressing with a purpose late in the game was certainly encouraging.
Williams turned in another impressive performance, leading the way with 16 points on 6-9 shooting, including three makes from behind the arc. He also hustled his way to 4 steals and epitomizes the never say die attitude this team exhibited in the loss.
While captain Deshawn Freeman was completely shut down and was held without a rebound or point in the first half, he responded with an 11 point, 4 rebound effort after the break. He needs help in the post against better teams, but it was great to see his effort.
Corey Sanders returned home to his native Florida and had a big group of friends and family in attendance. While he only shot 6 of 16 from the field, he played with a team first purpose and finished with 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. During the telecast, announcer Cory Alexander said Rutgers assistant coach Brandin Knight told him Sanders is the most athletic point guard he has ever coached. If he can continue to play the way the coaching staff is asking him to, better results will follow as the season progresses.
Another bright spot was seeing 7’0” center Shaq Doorson play some inspired basketball off the bench, slamming down two dunks and grabbing 4 rebounds in limited action. While he continues to work his way back from missing all of last season due to an injury, his potential is immense and Shaq could become a key contributor as Big Ten play begins.
It’s never fun to lose and, as Rutgers fans, we know that all too well. However, if you aren’t encouraged with the effort and fight this team displayed tonight, then your expectations are unrealistic. The 6-0 start was fantastic, but it also covered up some issues with this team. Tonight, you saw the lack of shooting behind the arc really hurt them (19%), as did their inability to rebound against a formidable opponent. Miami’s length forced Rutgers into running their offense too far away from the basket for too many possessions. However, Rutgers played excellent defense for significant stretches in the game. They shared the basketball and have more depth than there has been in several seasons.
Progress is the goal and there were positive steps made tonight. This is the type of loss that Rutgers can learn from and can help lead to winning tight conference games later on this season. Pikiell will have the players full attention in understanding the importance of maintaining their intensity and focus for an entire game against good teams. It’s a lesson all inexperienced teams must learn and that certainly was a major reason Rutgers lost tonight.
The flip side is they proved, when they did maintain it, they could be a thorn at the side of a more talented and athletic team. The potential to overachieve with the current roster is certainly there. Rutgers can build from this loss and continue to improve. On a night that ESPNU aired the famous speech of Rutgers alum Jim Valvano, this team learned if they never give up, they can beat teams they aren’t supposed to. That’s what you call progress.