The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered today’s game on a seven game losing streak and with an 0-6 record in Big Ten play. Although it’s been frustrating to watch this team struggle at times, whom head coach Steve Pikiell called “consistently inconsistent” yesterday, it’s obvious how different this season has been versus last. Today’s opponent was a huge opportunity to continue to make that point, as Rutgers lost to Nebraska by an average of 25 points in three defeats last year.
Defense has been the catalyst for the improvement on the court this season and today was no exception. Of course, to win in this league you need your best players to lead and Corey Sanders did just that, in perhaps the best game of his career. He scored 18 points in the second half and won the game with a shot off the glass with 1 second left in the game, as Rutgers defeated Nebraska 65-64. Here is how it all went down.
Key Moments of the 1st Half
After leading 6-4 at the under-16 timeout, Nebraska went on a 9-2 run to take control early. Rutgers committed 5 turnovers in the first 8 minutes of the game and had attempted only 8 shots to Nebraska’s 17 by the under-12 timeout. They were down 13-8 and in danger of falling even further behind if the sloppy play continued.
With the game tied at 17 with 8 minutes remaining in the opening frame, Pikiell switched to a 2-3 zone and it completely shut down the Nebraska offense. Rutgers utilized some three-quarters court pressure as well. Nebraska went scoreless from the field for the last 10:25 of the half, missing 17 shots in a row. Rutgers surged ahead and led 31-21 at the break. It was the best defensive stretch of the season for Rutgers.
Key Moments of the 2nd Half
Nebraska came out of the break hot, making three shots in a row, including a three-pointer, which led to Pikiell wisely calling a timeout. The 10 point lead shrunk to 5 just 1:27 into the second half. However, it didn’t stop Nebraska from tying the game with just under 15 minutes on a Tai Webster three-point play.
The next 5 plus minutes were no better unfortunately, as Nebraska jumped out to a 51-44 lead. After holding Nebraska to 21 first half points, the Cornhuskers scored 30 in just over the first 10 minutes of the second half. It appeared this winnable game was slipping away for Rutgers.
With Nebraska leading 53-46 and less than 10 minutes left in the game, Nigel Johnson hit a huge three-pointer in the corner, his third of the game. On the next posssesion, CJ Gettys had a big tip-in on a Freeman miss, getting the RAC crowd to explode. Corey Sanders then tied the game with two free throws and it was clear Rutgers was not going down without a fight.
The Game Was Over When...
Nebraska hits three three’s in a row to take a 64-59 lead with 1:29 to play, forcing a Pikiell timeout. Corey Sanders put on his super hero cape to win the game for Rutgers in the final sequence. He swiped a steal with 13 seconds down 1 point and then made a shot off the glass after CJ Gettys tipped him the ball off his original miss. Nebraska missed on their Hail Mary after a timeout.
What We Learned
Rutgers is a far different animal under head coach Steve Pikiell, as they never gave up and kept fighting until the end. To comeback down 7 points late in the game speaks volumes for the improvement in the toughness of this team, something Pikiell has harped on needing to get better with since he took over the program. This was a big step forward for the players today.
Corey Sanders can put this team on his back and he showed why he is the most talented player on the roster. The offense down the stretch was get the ball to Corey and let him take over. He finished incredibly well in traffic today. When he has it all working offensively, he is one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Although Nebraska shot very well for most of the second half, Rutgers got key stops when they had to get them, in order to stay in the game. The 2-3 zone in the first half was played aggressively and changed the trajectory of the game.
Coach Pikiell is getting the most out of the players on his roster, as they played great team basketball today. He cracked Corey Sanders up in the post game presser with his usual steady approach in talking about the victory and the need to stay the course. He is the leader that Rutgers basketball has needed for a very long time.
Players of the Game
Nebraska - Tai Webster
Webster is the best player on Nebraska and led them with 14 points. However, guarded by Sanders much of the game, he finished just 5 of 15 from the field in this game. He played very well after the break and was the catalyst for Nebraska erasing a 10 point halftime deficit to lead by as many as 7 points late in the game.
Rutgers - Corey Sanders
Nebraska simply could not stop Sanders off the dribble in this game and he was able to drive to the rim at will, finishing with some amazing shots in traffic. He was art in motion much of the second half, but his effort on the defensive end should not be understated. His steal trailing by 1 with the clock winding down was the key for setting up his game winning shot. Sanders finished with a game high 25 points, as well as a well rounded effort with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks. This should be counted as his best game in his Rutgers career so far.
Rutgers out-rebounded another Big Ten team, holding a +2 margin against Nebraska. Although it wasn’t by much, Nebraska was pounding the boards early and Rutgers did a great job continuing to battle on the glass, with the Gettys tip to Sanders the biggest offensive board of the game.
Four players scored in double figures for Rutgers, as Nigel Johnson, Deshawn Freeman, and CJ Gettys scored between 10-11 points each. Nigel was 3 of 3 from behind the arc and his last started the comeback.
Rutgers blocked 11 shots in the game, including 3 each from Sanders and Freeman.
Nebraska shot 49% from the field and was 7 of 14 from three-point range in the second half, but still lost. Rutgers had one of their best games shooting this season, finishing 46% from the floor, 50% from three-point range (Nigel made all 3), and a solid 14 of 20 from the free throw line for 70%. Freeman made two huge shots from the line down the stretch that were so important.
Rutgers has a short turnaround, as they head back on the road against Maryland. At least it's the shortest available road trip in the Big Ten for the Scarlet Knights. The Terrapins will be well rested after their last game was Thursday night in a win at Iowa. Maryland has exceeded expectations so far this season. They will bring a 17-2 record into the game and are in first place in the Big Ten after a 5-1 start. There is hope though, as their one loss in conference play came at home to Nebraska.
After beating the Cornhuskers themselves today in thrilling fashion, Rutgers will enter Tuesday’s game with a world of confidence. The importance of this team getting their first B1G win less than half the way through the conference schedule should do wonders for their morale. If they can continue to work and play hard, more victories will follow this season. Enjoy today’s win everyone, as this victory marks tangible progress for this program.
For postgame quotes and reaction from coach Steve Pikiell, Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman, Nigel Johnson and Nebraska coach Tim Miles, click here. For Dave White’s four thoughts on the game, click here.