The biggest question coming into this game was whether Rutgers could avoid a post-Thanksgiving hangover, playing a matinee on Black Friday at the RAC for the second straight season. Last year, Rutgers struggled most of the day before a C.J. Gettys putback with seven seconds left secured a 1 point victory for the Scarlet Knights. After a sloppy start today against East Carolina, it looked like Rutgers might need similar late game heroics to ensure the program's second consecutive 6-0 start. Fortunately, the team woke up much earlier in this game and behind some stellar defense, cruised to a 61-47 victory.
East Carolina jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 12-5 before the Rutgers defense clamped down and held the Pirates without a field goal for over seven minutes. Rutgers went on a 14-1 run during that extended stretch, in which the defense stifled East Carolina and took a 19-13 lead. The issue was that Rutgers went cold shooting the ball as well, going on a six plus minute stretch without a field goal. Believe it or not, it was free throw shooting that built the lead, as Rutgers started the game making 7 of 8 from the line. However, they struggled badly the rest of the half from the charity stripe, making just 4 of 11 attempts before the break. However, the struggles were mostly due to to Deshawn Freeman (3 of 7) and Candido Sa (0 of 2).
It was the defense that was the true star on Black Friday and was the difference in this game. East Carolina averaged 71 points entering this game and was shooting 55% from two-point range. They scored only 46 points in the game and shot just 42% from inside the arc. Rutgers also forced 19 turnovers and held a +5 rebounding edge. East Carolina's two leading scorers coming in, B.J. Tyson (17 ppg) and Kentrell Barkley (15 ppg), scored just 8 points combined in the game.
Defense also helped end the field goal drought for the Scarlet Knights in the first half as well. Deshawn Freeman, who scored the first 7 points of the game for Rutgers, made a great hustle play by blocking a sure lay-up in transition and then Mike Williams found him for his own lay-in, which broke the field goal drought. Freeman was fouled and completed the three-point play.
The outside shooting started to appear late in the half, as Issa Thiam and Geo Baker each made a three-pointer and Rutgers went to the break leading 32-21. Overall, Rutgers finished the half on a 27-8 run the last 14+ minutes of the opening frame after trailing 12-5. Despite shooting 27% from the floor, 58% from the line, and Corey Sanders scoring just 1 point, Rutgers held a double digit lead at the half.
Rutgers began the second half slowly as well, missing its first four field goal attempts and ECU made two quick ones to cut the lead to 7 points. However, Issa Thiam hit his third three of the game, this one from the corner, and Rutgers assumed control that was never relented the rest of the way. Rutgers went on an 8-0 run to take a commanding 54-31 lead midway through the second half. The Scarlet Knights didn't finish the game particularly well, as there was some sloppy play and plenty of missed shots in the last ten minutes of the game. They finished shooting just 32% from the floor and 61% from the free throw line. Still, it was a double digit victory for Rutgers, who start 6-0 for the second straight season.
Deshawn Freeman led the way today and was the only player to come out with a lot of energy right from the opening tip. Despite his struggles from the free throw line (5-11), he scored a game high 15 points and grabbed a team high 11 rebounds. He even dished out two assists, including this beauty to Eugene Omoruyi.
Deshawn Freeman is still in the giving mood dishing to Eugene Omoruyi for the dunk! pic.twitter.com/qtosbbJ3r9— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) November 24, 2017
When Freeman comes out hungry to take control, he can do just that for this team. Rutgers will need plenty of days like this from Freeman in Big Ten play, as well as next week against Florida State.
The play of Shaq Doorson was a big development and extremely encouraging in this game, as the 7-footer had only played limited minutes coming into today. In the first half alone, he grabbed 6 rebounds, including 3 offensive, and made both free throw attempts in 7 minutes off the bench. He played solid defense as well. It continued after the break, as Shaq thrilled the home faithful with two emphatic slam dunks. He received a loud ovation when he went out midway through the second half and with Rutgers leading by 19 points. Shaq played perhaps his best game in his Rutgers career, finishing with 8 points and 9 rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench. If Pikiell can get anything close to this type of production from Shaq on a consistent basis in conference play, it will be a major plus for this team. Coach Pikiell had this to say about Shaq and what he has overcome injury wise to have this type of performance:
“He’s been getting better and better in practice. He’s had quite the journey. He was out for six months, it seemed like two years. But he’s getting in that game condition and shape. I’m really proud. He’s plugged away. Yesterday we shot a bunch of free throws too before practice. He’s getting better, rounded into shape and we need him. He can bring a dimension that we desperately need and didn’t have. So, really proud that he’s stayed the course and he keeps getting better.”
In terms of the rest of the team, Issa Thiam made 3 of 4 attempts from behind the arc, finishing with 9 points and 5 rebounds. Mike Williams added 7 points and 3 rebounds off the bench. Corey Sanders struggled from the field, making just 2 of 15 shots, finishing with 6 points, 3 assists, and no turnovers. Geo Baker followed up his career high 29 points on Tuesday with just 5 points on 1 of 8 shooting. Such is life as a freshman.
Now the real games begin. Rutgers is set to host Florida State (4-0) this coming Tuesday night at the RAC as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. After a few days off, the Scarlet Knights will travel for the first time all season, opening up Big Ten play on December 3rd at #14 Minnesota (6-0). Just two days later, Rutgers will welcome #4 Michigan State (3-1) to the RAC. We will learn a lot more about this team after this difficult three game stretch. However, we know a lot already. Rutgers struggles to score in the halfcourt, shooting low percentages in every phase of the offense, but can be a dangerous team when they rebound and defend the way they did in this game. East Carolina head coach Jeff Lebo described Rutgers perfectly after the game:
"Rutgers is tough, they are physical, and they’re going to be a tough team. They’ll have to find some scoring from the perimeter, but they did the two things they needed to do to win very well, and that’s defend and rebound the basketball."
Rutgers did respond with a certain edge in this game that wasn't present last season. It's an important trait for this team to develop and will serve them well as the competition ramps up next week.
For Dave White's Four Thoughts on the win, click here.