It was a sluggish start on a Sunday afternoon that was cold in more ways than one, but the Rutgers men's basketball team finally warmed up and secured a 71-67 victory over Central Connecticut State. However, after beating CCSU by 42 points last season, this game was much closer than expected. After trailing most of the first half and shooting just 30% from the field in the opening frame, the Scarlet Knights did enough to win the game. While only shooting 35% overall for the game, Rutgers did make 21 of 27 free throw attempts in a game they needed to shoot well from the line and did with a encouraging 78% effort.
The truth is that without the play of Mike Williams in this game, Rutgers would likely have lost. It speaks to the value of Williams, but also highlights that this team is very much a work progress midway through the first week of the season. Credit head coach Steve Pikiell for showing the foresight and patience to hold Williams out in the season opener to ensure he was ready to make an impact in this game.
Rutgers came out flat and fell behind 10-2 before the senior captain entered the game, his first action of the season. He promptly drained two three-pointers on his was to a 12 point first half. Eugene Omoruyi also played well off the bench adding 7 points before the break. Everyone else shot poorly and struggled to get much going on the offensive end. There were too many times players settled for jump shots and missed. It was just a 40 hour turnaround for Rutgers coming off their opening game victory over CCNY on Friday night. However, CCSU was facing the same turnaround and went into overtime in its season opening loss to Hartford, but shot 52% from the field to start the game. They finished the game shooting 48% in the loss and committed 20 turnovers. The bottom line it was still a disappointing performance from Rutgers in this game, but they were able to avoid disaster and barely beat CCSU, who was picked to finish 9th in the ten team Northeast Conference.
After finally taking control early in the second half and leading 44-36, the Scarlet Knights mistakenly relaxed and CCSU went on a 8-0 run that forced head coach Steve Pikiell to call a timeout with just under 12 minutes to play. After CCSU took a two point lead, Rutgers was led once again by Williams, who sparked a 9-0 run for the lead that the Scarlet Knights never relented. Williams made two free throws, a three-pointer and had a beautiful touch pass to Deshawn Freeman for an emphatic slam during that stretch.
After the under-8 timeout, Rutgers continued to push the pace and after trailing 46-44 midway through the second half, that run started by Williams turned in to a 19-4 stretch and a 13 point lead, the largest of the game. Unfortunately, Rutgers failed to deliver a knock out punch and CCSU cut the lead to just 4 points with under a minute to play.
Overall, Williams finished with a game high 23 points, 4 steals, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 block. He was 5 of 10 from the field, 3 of 5 from three-point range, and an impressive 10 of 12 from the free throw line, including several key makes in the final minute of the game. The importance of Williams to this team cannot be overstated. Without his performance, Rutgers likely would have lost by double digits. Omoruyi was also impressive off the bench, putting together a 13 point, 7 rebound, 2 block effort on 6 of 12 shooting (50%). It was a career scoring high for Omoruyi. Both players also scrapped and did the little things, making winning plays, including Omoruyi taking a charge late in the game.
As for the rest of the team, Freeman had 11 points and 7 rebounds, but shot just 4 of 11 from the field, missing several near the rim, and committed 4 turnovers. Corey Sanders had 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists, but also struggled from the field, making just 4 of 15 shots in the game. Freshman Geo Baker continues to struggle shooting wise (1 of 7 FG, 0-3 3-point FG), but made all four free throw attempts and finished with 6 points, 4 assists, 4 steals and 3 rebounds. Candido Sa had some positive plays off the bench, grabbing 6 rebounds and blocking 2 shots. Rutgers held a +8 rebounding advantage in the game
Rutgers will need to rest up and get their legs back, as they tip off their third game in five days on Tuesday night at the RAC against Cleveland State (0-1). Hopefully, the quick turnaround will prove timely, allowing this team to move past this subpar performance and get back on track in its next game. At the end of the day, it's always better to learn from a bad game and still get the win, like they did today against CCSU. The tape from this game will give Pikiell and the coaching staff plenty of material to push this team in practice and get them playing at a higher level. It's just the second game of the season, but there is no question that Rutgers is far from where they'll need to be once they begin playing better competition.