After a third consecutive ugly half of basketball in the first week of the season, Rutgers finally found their groove after the break tonight. The Scarlet Knights came out of the locker room with renewed energy and focus, extending a 31-22 halftime lead to 23 points behind a 18-4 run in the first six minutes of second half action. Corey Sanders scored the first bucket after the break and assisted on two others soon after, asserting control of the offense. Rutgers never looked back and cruised to a 70-38 victory, holding Cleveland State to just 16 second half points.
After a sluggish opening 4 minutes to the game, Rutgers built a 13 point lead at 29-16, before the Cleveland State zone stymied the offense. The Scarlet Knights scored just two points in the final 3+ minutes of the first half and went to the break leading 31-22. They shot 45% from the field in the opening 20 minutes, while Cleveland State shot just 33%.
The most promising development during the stretch early in the second half was the play of Issa Thiam. He made a jumper at the top of the key and then proceeded to knock down three consecutive shots behind the arc. The best one was in transition, as Deshawn Freeman grabbed a steal, found Sanders, who then dished to Thiam in the left corner, who made a beautiful step back three. He proceeded to make two more soon after and it blew Cleveland State out of contention in a game that was relatively close most of the first half. After a career high 18 points and the first double-double for Issa in a Rutgers uniform in the opener against CCNY, Thiam produced his second strong performance of the season in this game. He finished with 14 points, highlighted by making 4 of 8 three-point attempts. He also added 7 rebounds, showing his improvement in becoming a factor near the rim.
Another positive development was the play of freshman guard Geo Baker. After struggling with his shot in the first two games of his collegiate career, he finally broke out in this game. Baker made the first three-pointer of his career on a assist from Sanders in the first half, and then made a second on another dish from Sanders late in the second half. You can see the potential in his game and he continued to distribute the rock in a productive way. On the night, Baker had 14 points on 6 of 12 shooting, including 2 of 6 from behind the arc, as well as a game high 7 assists. He also didn’t commit a turnover, after losing it 8 times combined in his first two games.
Seeing Baker and Sanders play together was fun to watch in this game. Corey was struggling with his shot in the first half, but played a solid game and worked to get others involved, especially Baker. The duo combined for two noteworthy highlights in the game.
Nice dime, Corey Sanders!— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) November 15, 2017
(Nice finish, too, Geo Baker.)
It's a @RutgersMBB highlight. pic.twitter.com/AEVExYzXck
Alley-oop time!— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) November 15, 2017
Geo Baker finds Corey Sanders for the @RutgersMBB bucket. pic.twitter.com/zqH1cbaNZu
Sanders gave a performance that showed his development as a point guard and he played in an unselfish way. While Sanders struggled with his shot, making just 5 of 13 attempts, he looked for his teammates in key spots and was aggressive on the boards. Sanders had a double-double with 13 points and a career high 10 rebounds, as well as 6 assists and 1 steal.
Captains Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams didn’t have to do much heavy lifting in this game, but were solid again. Freeman had 10 points, 8 boards, 2 blocks, and 2 steals. Williams provided another spark off the bench in this game and finished with 8 points and 3 rebounds. Freshman Mamadou Doucoure added 6 points and 4 rebounds.
As a team, Rutgers held a +11 edge on the glass, committed just 8 turnovers and shot 45% from the floor, including 7 three-pointers (29%). It was an encouraging performance after a disappointing and too close for comfort, 4 point win over CCSU on Sunday afternoon. Cleveland State is not a very good team either, but they're better than CCSU. Rutgers imposed their will and played with real energy in the second half. It was an encouraging effort early on in the season. After picking up three wins in five days, Rutgers can now work on things in practice for a few days before returning to action at the RAC on Sunday afternoon against Coppin State.
To read Dave White’s 4 Thoughts, click here.