This game was a major test for Rutgers and they looked like a veteran team in finishing this game the victor. They weathered a flurry of three-pointers from Stony Brook throughout the game, who finished 13-29 from deep for 45% from behind the arc. If you had told me that stat line before the game, I wouldn’t have thought the outcome would have been in Rutgers favor. However, they were able to find a way to win on the road against a scrappy Stony Brook team, winning 71-66 and marking head coach Steve Pikiell’s return to his former program a triumphant one.
It was a tense beginning, as Stony Brook led most of the first half with Rutgers keeping pace, trailing 37-36 after the deficit was as large as 7 points. The fullcourt press called by Pikiell right before the break cut into the lead, spurred by Nigel Johnson’s steal of an inbounds pass and lay-in for a quick layup. Both teams shot 50% from the field and were hot from three-point range in the opening frame. Rutgers was 5 of 11 and Stony Brook was 6 of 12. Despite having a +7 rebounding margin, Rutgers committed 9 turnovers and had several traveling calls. Their defense and handling of the basketball had to improve in the second half, which is exactly what happened.
The second half started badly for Rutgers though, surrendering a flurry of points by Stony Brook, who hit back to back three’s and led 47-37 less than three minutes after the break. Nigel Johnson came up clutch again, as he did the entire game, hitting a big shot from behind the arc. Stony Brook point guard Lucas Woodhouse turned it over on the next possession, giving Rutgers some momentum. After a Deshawn Freeman block, Corey Sanders went coast to coast with a layup in traffic, cutting the lead in half. However, he was in foul trouble all night and committed his second charge of the night soon after, giving him three personals with 15+ minutes left in the game.
Stony Brook kept shooting from behind the arc and made Rutgers pay for too many open looks. At the under-12 timeout, they led 55-48 and were 10 of 17 from three. However, Issa Thiam had a great up and under lay-in before the timeout, giving Rutgers some much needed life. It sparked them when they needed it most. Two Nigel Johnson baskets followed, as well as a Freeman dunk assisted by Sanders to cut the lead to 1. After a three-point play inside from CJ Gettys, Rutgers took the lead and never looked back. Corey Sanders scored in traffic again soon after and Mike Williams followed with a tough basket in the paint, pushing the lead to six at the under-8 timeout. That completed a 15-0 run to lead 61-55. Amazingly, Rutgers didn’t score from the field the final eight minutes of the game, but still came out with the victory.
Rutgers showed a lot of poise and took control at the exact moment they needed to before the Stony Brook lead was too much to overcome. It was the sign of a team that is starting to learn how to win and make real forward progress. Stony Brook couldn’t stay hot and methodically ran their offense, getting to the foul line and taking advantage, shooting a perfect 10-10 in the final minutes of the game. Nigel Johnson made the first six in a row, followed by a pair each from Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams, who iced the game with 3 seconds left.
Johnson was phenomenal tonight, leading all scorers with a career high of 21 points on 50% shooting, including two three’s and was a clutch 7-9 from the free throw line overall. He also grabbed 6 rebounds, but his assertiveness on offense in the second half was the real story. Nigel essentially took the game over in the second half, scoring 13 of the 35 points Rutgers put up after the break. He wanted the ball in his hands and came through in a big way.
Corey Sanders provided a spark at times as well, scoring 13 points on 6-10 from the field. However, he did commit three charges and was in foul trouble all night. He was able to stay in the game and played tough defense in the final stretch of action.
While Deshawn Freeman wasn’t a major factor on offense, finishing with just 8 points on 3-7 shooting from the field, he came up huge with 12 boards, helping Rutgers hold a +11 rebounding margin in the game. He also had the only 2 blocks all night for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers wasn’t strong in the paint on defense for most of the first half, but really buckled down and held Stony Brook to just 29 points after the break.
There were several other contributors on offense, with Mike Williams scoring 9 points, followed by Issa Thiam and CJ Gettys with 8 points each. Williams was his steady, reliable self again tonight and had a huge rebound late in the game that kept Rutgers ahead. Overall, it was a great team effort and balanced output on the offensive end, with six players scoring 8 or more points in the contest. Rutgers took good shots within their offense and finished at 49% from the floor on the night, one of their better outputs of the season.
This was a clutch win for this team, who played in front of the most hostile crowd they have seen all season. Emotions ran high with head coach Steve Pikiell’s return to Stony Brook, which included five other staffers who came with him to Rutgers. As the game was in the balance, Pikiell played his most reliable lineup in Sanders, Johnson, Williams, Freeman, and Gettys. As I’ve said before, it doesn't matter who starts the game, but who finishes. The play of Johnson and Williams off the bench have fueled the team’s success all season and tonight was no exception. Rutgers committed only 4 turnovers in the second half, which certainly helped key the victory.
Rutgers returns home with a 9-1 record two weeks out from Christmas. This was a big week for the program and one in which they made positive steps forward in their development. As Steve Pikiell brought his new team back to a place he built from scratch and called home for 11 years, he proved that this season for Rutgers basketball really is “knight and day” from recent years past. That is certainly something worth celebrating.