I have written and re-written this intro several times. To quote Ron Burgundy, I felt "trapped in a glass case of emotion" from the midway point of the second half until the end of the game. I contemplated drinking a full bottle of pepto-bismol like a beer more than once. It was a wild, wild and ultimately, truly heartbreaking loss. This game looked like it had the makings of a great team win for Rutgers. Had being the key word, because after some truly spirited and impressive individual performances, Rutgers lost their 24th consecutive regular season Big Ten game and 25th overall. And in truly bitter and gut wrenching fashion, no less.
They came out hungry and started hot, led by Corey Sanders, and Rutgers took a commanding early 24-12 lead with 11:33 left in the first half. Sanders was in full attack mode, totaling 7 points, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds during the opening minutes. The game changed when he picked up his second foul with 7:30 to play in the half and Rutgers leading 28-19. Illinois finished the half on a 18-12 run as Rutgers looked lost on offense without Sanders. However, Mike Williams hit a floater in the lane as the buzzer sounded and Rutgers marched into the locker room with a 40-37 lead at the break.
It was a dogfight the whole second half and it was obvious this one was destined to go down to the wire. Who would have thought the end of the wire would actually include three overtimes? There were several great performances tonight, but Corey Sanders carried this team down the stretch and played a heroic game. Unfortunately, as well as he played, it will be the end of regulation that will likely haunt him for days to come.
Illinois scored with 9 seconds to play to take the lead by 1 point. Sanders fearlessly dribbled the ball the length of the court and got fouled driving to the rim. He hit the first to tie the game. With a chance to win the game and end this brutal losing streak, he missed the second. After Grier stupidly fouled Illinois, there was 2 minutes of nervous waiting as officials reviewed to see if the foul was called with the play in the act of shooting. It was ruled not and this one headed to overtime.
Rutgers fell behind 80-77 after two quick fouls by Mike Williams, who ultimately fouled out in the first overtime. Sanders forced a deep three early in the shot clock and missed. With two minutes left and the same score, Grier took a long two point shot from the corner that was forced. They simply stopped getting into the paint and settled for contested jumpers. It looked like the game was over with Rutgers down 84-77 with 43 seconds to play. Sanders hit four free throws and Grier hit a three-pointer, but after Khalid Lewis hit one of two free throws. Illinois led 87-84. And then Sanders took the ball down the court, missed a three at the top of the key, grabbed his own long rebound, turned his back, dribbled behind the arc, turned again and knocked down a fade away, improbable three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. The RAC of old awoke and the game was headed into double overtime.
Illinois and Rutgers traded baskets in the second extra time and finished the frame tied again at 93. Triple overtime. And then reality set in. Rutgers ran out of gas as Greg Lewis, Omari Grier, Jonathan Laurent, D.J. Foreman and Sanders played virtually the entire three extra five minute overtimes. Rutgers stopped running their offense and Illinois ran away with the victory Eddie Jordan and his players so desperately wanted, and more importantly, needed. They were outscored 17-8 and lost 110-101.
Corey Sanders played an amazing game. He was unselfish and drove and dished most of the night. Yet, he also literally carried this team the rest of the time with many acrobatic drives and clutch baskets. He was so effective with dribble penetration all night, but settled for too many jumpers late in overtime. Regardless, he played like the star he is, scoring 39 points along with 12 assists, 8 rebounds and 3 steals. While he shot a dreadful 2-11 from three and 14-33 from the field overall, he handled the ball the best all season and only had 2 turnovers all game. He gave maximum effort and wore his heart on his sleeve. True competitor and better days are surely ahead of the all-world freshman.
He wasn't the only Scarlet Knight who played his heart out. Greg Lewis played his best game in weeks and display played a passion and aggression that was fun to watch. He only scored 6 points, but was a beast in the paint, registering 16 rebounds, including 7 offensive, and had 3 blocks. Lewis played like a warrior.
Jonathan Laurent displayed what a dangerous weapon he can be, backing up Sanders with 23 points on 9-14 from the field and grabbing 8 rebounds. He found holes in the Illinois defense all night, slashing his way to the rim with great body control. Laurent is a true finisher and once he becomes more consistent, can become a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. Omari Grier gave a steady scoring punch off the bench and plays with a quiet confidence. He scored 18 points, including several key baskets, on 7-12 from the floor and 3-6 from behind the arc. Mike Williams is starting to play at another level on a consistent basis. It was his fourth strong game in a row, scoring 15 points on 6-11 from the field and 3-6 from long range. He has averaged 17 points on 49% shooting in his past four games.
It's amazing that Rutgers saw Bishop Daniels and D.J. Foreman combine for zero points on 0-7 shooting in this game.One bucket from either in regulation and it would have been a different story. After a gutty and hard fought effort by Rutgers, the losing continued. The team falls to 6-17 and 0-10 in conference play. This one hurt. Rutgers has two short days to regroup and a long plane ride to Lincoln, Nebraska to face a team that beat them by 34 points at the RAC a month ago. It's truly gut check time for this program.