This one hurt and while the final result was extremely disappointing, some perspective is needed in evaluating this game. Rutgers took on the best team in the Big Ten and while they fell painfully short, they played tremendous defense and showed how much progress they’ve made in a relatively short time frame. While the offense continues to struggle, Rutgers almost won the game based on guts, guile, and of course, gritty defensive play.
They led for 25 minutes of the game and it was 41-32 with 3:22 to play, which was their largest lead of the contest. Wisconsin big man Ethan Happ took over the game and Rutgers could not stop him. Rutgers actually shot a better percentage from the free throw line than Wisconsin, but they went just 2 of 6 down the stretch and once Happ tied it with 2 seconds remaining, the fear was Rutgers didn’t have enough left in the tank for overtime. That turned out to be the reality, but it was a battle the entire way and Rutgers is a much improved team in late January, compared to even a month ago.
Key Moment Of The 1st Half
Rutgers was trailing 18-17, when Nigel Johnson was fouled from behind the arc and made all three of his free throws. They followed it up with a NBA range three-pointer by Mike Williams, his first basket from deep in weeks. On the other end, Issa Thiam came up with a huge steal and finished with an emphatic slam dunk to give Rutgers a 25-18 lead, completing an impressive 8-0 run. Wisconsin was held scoreless the final 10:36 of the opening frame and shot 20% from the floor in the half, including 1 of 12 from three-point range. Badger stars Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig combined to shoot 0 of 8 from the floor for 2 points.
Key Moments Of The 2nd Half
With Rutgers losing their lead and trailing 29-27, Pikiell called a timeout right before the 12 minute mark and Rutgers responded with a big 8-0 run that swung the momentum back in their direction. Mike Williams made a huge baseline jumper, fading away as the shot clock was expiring. Nigel Johnson stole it on the other end and found Eugene Omoruyi for a dunk. Then Deshawn Freeman took it strong to the basket and finished, giving Rutgers 33-29 lead, as Wisconsin called a timeout. The next possession, Nigel stole it again and found Corey Sanders for a layup.
Down 37-30, Happ grabbed an offensive rebound, finished and got fouled. However, he missed the free throw and Pikiell called a timeout with 4:21 remaining. The next possession, Nigel Johnson made a huge fadeaway jumper as the shot clock was expiring to give Rutgers a much needed bucket. After two free throws by CJ Gettys, Rutgers had their largest lead of the game at 41-32 with 3:22 remaining.
Wisconsin stormed back, as Ethan Happ took over, scoring 8 points, including the basket with 2 second left to tie the game. It took a 13-4 run the last 3 minutes for Wisconsin to avoid the upset. The run also included a huge three-pointer from star guard Bronson Koenig.
The Game Was Over When
Happ was doubled in the corner and found Nigel Hayes, who made the basket under the rim and was fouled. He completed the three-point play and put Wisconsin up 4 points in overtime with 1:33 remaining.
Players Of The Game
Wisconsin - Ethan Happ
What an incredible performance by the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, as Happ finished with 32 points on 12 of 18 shooting from the field. He would have had even more, but he struggled from the charity stripe, making just 8 of 16. Even so, he was the most talented player on the floor among a team of great players. He also added 6 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocks.
Rutgers - Team Defense
The job that Pikiell and assistant Jay Young have done with this team on the defensive end is nothing short of incredible. Last season, Rutgers held Big Ten opponents under 70 points just twice in 19 games. This season, they’ve done it six times in nine games. The buy-in on the defensive end has changed the perception of this team league wide and they just held two all-league players in Koenig and Nigel Hayes, to 17 points combined on 4 of 20 shooting from the field. The team looked gassed at the end, but their effort was top notch and their defense will give them a chance in every game moving forward. That’s progress.
Wisconsin shot 33% from the floor and a putrid 12% on 3 of 25 from three-point range. Rutgers was constantly on the ball with pressure and gave up very few open looks to the Badgers.
While Rutgers shot an acceptable 44% from the field in the first half, they were just 26% from the field in the second half. While they did miss some key free throws down the stretch, they shot 65% on 13 of 20 for the game, which is actually a big step up from their 53% in Big Ten play before today. Wisconsin only shot 64% from the line.
Rutgers out-rebounded Wisconsin 44-41, continuing an impressive stretch of having success on the boards in Big Ten play. This has been the second most important and encouraging development this season, aside from the defense.
Turnovers were definitely an issue, as they gave up 19. Far too many in any game. Rutgers did do a good job forcing 15 Wisconsin turnovers.
Corey Sanders led Rutgers with 15 points on 6 of 17 shooting. He had 6 points early on, but Wisconsin did a good job of containing him for the majority of the game. Sanders did make a couple big shots down the stretch and had a monster three-pointer to begin overtime, but it wasn’t enough.
Nigel Johnson was the only other player in double figure for Rutgers, finishing with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. He was also 6 of 7 from the line, but his lone miss was with 20 seconds left in the game and Rutgers only up 1 point. He made the second, but if he made both, it would have forced a three-point attempt and would have potentially taken Happ out of the final offensive possession for Wisconsin. To be fair, Badgers guard Bronson Koenig credited Johnson with playing him very tough on the defensive end the entire game.
What We Learned
Rutgers is close to becoming an elite defensive team. Wisconsin just scored 84 points on Tuesday against Penn State, the team with the best defensive rating in the conference. Rutgers held the Badgers to 61 points in 45 minutes in their best defensive effort of the season.
However, as Pikiell said in the post-game presser, it’s a 40 minute game and Rutgers failed to close down the stretch. He harped on two missed block outs in the final minutes that he cited as key mistakes. Wisconsin did dominate on the offensive glass in the final minutes of the game.
While the offense continues to struggle and be a work in progress, if this team can get contributions from every player on the court, they’ll have a chance in every game. It was great to see Issa Thiam get that dunk on a fast break and he was playing great defense in the second half. Shaq Doorson fought for a key tie up that forced a jump ball and gave Rutgers possession late in the game. If the end of the bench can give this team moments like that on a consistent basis, this team will be much harder to beat moving forward.
Rutgers played well in what had more of a road game feel, than the official home game this contest counted as. Give credit to the Rutgers students and fans that did attend, they were awesome. Hearing the R-U chants in the Garden as Wisconsin fans sat in silence was thoroughly enjoyable from my seat on the baseline. However, the Wisconsin fans really helped their team in those final minutes and that shouldn't be forgotten. When the Scarlet Knight is shown on the big screen over mid-court and is booed heavily, it’s safe to say this game was no way a home game.
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard On The Game
“Well obviously, not exactly a thing of beauty, but thankfully defensively we were able to get some things done and kept them off the glass enough and then eventually, just in the nick of time, we were able to get a couple of shots to go down. Credit to Rutgers for how they played us, Steve Pikiell has done a good job with that team all year. Watching games and scored sometimes aren’t indicative of how they’ve been playing. Obviously, they try and make things hard on you and if you don’t shoot well, then you can be in these type of games. I though we did just enough down the stretch and obviously like I said, defensively, the defensive rebounding saved us to give us a chance down the stretch.”
Rutgers Head Coach Steve Pikiell On The Game
“I want to thank everyone for coming - great environmeant today great basketball game. We came up a little short. Wisconsin is really good, as everybody knows, you're not ranked and have the record they have. Well coached veterans, senior-laden team, but we’re getting there. We’re getting there, we need to figure out ways to win down the stretch and have to make some timely buckets. We’re going to get there. Great environment, great day for college basketball here at the Garden.”
Pikiell on Losing The Lead
“You have to make some free throws. I think that’s important. We missed a couple of free throw block outs late that were critical in the game. Down the stretch, Nigel made a great pass to Candido Sa, maybe a year from now that will be a dunk. Instead, it became some missed free throws. Just some missed opportunities that we have to capitalize on and we have to know how to win against really good teams. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Pikiell On The Final Sequence Of Regulation
“Down the stretch, we played zone, we played man to man and it’s a 40 minute game. I told our guys, we beat Nebraska with one second left in the game. You have to play 40 minutes. Everyone will get caught up in the last possession, but we had two free throw block outs that we didn't get the rebound for. Nobody remembers those plays. Happ made a great play, down the stretch we probably wanted to foul him and try and wall up, but he’s a big time player, one of the best in the league and he made a play over us. The game went into overtime with that. We still had five more minutes and we could have won the game in overtime”
Corey Sanders On What Went Wrong In Overtime
“I’m not really sure. Today wasn’t our best game. I feel like we could have done better on offense, but we have to give credit to Wisconsin, they play really good defense. Just a bad day offensively for us. We could have done much better and maybe the game turns out differently.”
Rutgers returns home for a winnable game against the Iowa Hawkeyes, a team they lost to by just 6 points on the road earlier this month. They have struggled of late, losing three in a row and are 0-4 on the road in conference play. Iowa starts four freshman alongside Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok.
In terms of today’s game, it’s tough to swallow in the short term, as Rutgers had the mighty Badgers dead in the water. However, as strong as a defensive effort as they gave, they fell short in the end. This team isn’t going to be able to change their offensive identity much in the short term, but they’re playing much smarter and as a team.
They have shown resiliency and toughness recently that was never there before. As a Wisconsin writer told me after the game, Rutgers is quickly becoming a team no one wants to play. They battle and don’t make anything easy for their opponents. Despite the tough loss, this game showed that Rutgers is building an identity as a program. This is hugely positive development in the long term future under Pikiell. If they can continue to work hard and execute the coaching staff’s gameplans in a more consistent manner, more wins will certainly follow this season. The second half of the Big Ten schedule starts Tueday back at the RAC and if this type of effort can become routine, we will see a lot more progress the rest of the way.