Head coach Steve Pikiell delivered his first signature win of his Rutgers tenure with an improbable 71-65 victory over blood rival Seton Hall on Saturday afternoon in front of the largest home crowd at the RAC in 15 years. With Rutgers trailing by as many as 13 points in this game and by 9 points with six minutes to play, the Scarlet Knights produced a 17-2 run down the stretch that shocked the #15th ranked Pirates. Seton Hall failed to score a basket the final six minutes of the game and Corey Sanders carried Rutgers down the stretch, finishing with a game high 22 points on 9 of 16 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds and 4 steals. He was nanmed MVP of the Garden State Hardwood Classic, a game Rutgers won for the first time.
Seton Hall started fast in this game, jumping out to a 13-6 lead in the first five minutes and led 19-10 at the under-12 timeout. The Rutgers defense had a gaping hole in the paint and was allowing too much penetration, as the Hall was getting to the rim too easily. On the other end of the floor, the Scarlet Knights were settling for too many jumpers and not attacking the basket enough. The athleticism, size and pace of Seton Hall was a major problem for Rutgers in the first half and that was evident right from the opening tip.
Things were tense on the court from the opening tip as well, as early on Deshawn Freeman and Ish Sanogo, an intriguing matchup in the paint, were jawing at each other from the start. Midway through the first half, Desi Rodriguez and Eugene Omoruyi were assessed joint technical fouls. As much passion as there was on the court, the dominant play of Seton Hall for most of the first half kept the sellout crowd at the RAC mostly subdued.
Rutgers trailed 22-13 and with the Hall having made 3 of 7 from three-point range, head coach Steve Pikiell switched to a 2-3 zone. While it slowed the Pirates in the halfcourt, two quick baskets in transition led to Pikiell calling a timeout with 8:15 left in the half with the Hall doubling up Rutgers 26-13. At this point in the action, Seton Hall held a +7 edge on the boards and had just 1 turnover, while shooting 46% from the field.
Out of the timeout, Rutgers finally woke up. Freeman found Geo Baker, who had been quiet up to that point, on the wing for a huge three-pointer. Angel Delgado was called for traveling on the other end and finally the home faithful had something to cheer about. Baker then followed with a tough, up and under basket off of a Shaq Doorson offensive rebound and momentum was on the side of the Scarlet Knights for the first time all afternoon. Unfortunately Desi Rodriguez hit a three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring on the next possession. Khadeen Carrington followed with a basket and foul play on the next trip down the court and the lead ballooned to 31-18.
However, a 7-0 run in two minutes from Rutgers got the RAC rocking and forced a Seton Hall timeout with 3:37 to play in the half and the lead was at 31-25. It was started by a three-point play by Corey Sanders, who had a tremendous first half, leading all scorers with 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting.
Sanders was often imploring the home fans to be loud by waving his arms in the air. After the pace continued to be relentless and the Hall pushed the lead back to nine points, Sanders hit a big three-pointer with a minute to play. Unfortunately, the Pirates ended the half on a 4-0 run, capped by a crazy dunk by Myles Cale and Rutgers trailed 42-32 at the break. The Scarlet Knights shot just 36% in the opening frame and, honestly, were lucky not to be trailing by more after the slow start. Seton Hall failed to take advantage as much as they could have and it contributed to them losing this game down the stretch.
After the break, Rutgers came out strong and after Geo Baker made all three free throws on a foul by Carrington, the lead was 47-41. Unfortunately, Sanders and Baker had several shots rim in and out, as the Scarlet Knights went over three minutes without a field goal. No sequence was more painful than after the Hall pushed the lead to ten soon after, Rutgers missed four shots on one possession, despite close looks at the rim by Omoruyi, Shaq Doorson, and Mike Williams. It ended with an airball on a jumper by Sanders. Rutgers was mired in a 1 of 10 stretch from the field and things were looking bleak.
The Hall struggled as well though, turning it over 5 times in the first ten minutes of the second half and were held without a field goal for over a three minute stretch. With the lead hanging between 7-10 points up until that point, Geo Baker hit a huge three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring, ending the shooting drought, to cut the lead to 5 points. Omoruyi produced a steal on the other end and Freeman was fouled in transition. He made one of two and Seton Hall led 52-48 with 11:30 left in the game.
Omoruyi followed the next possession with a raucous dunk off of an offensive rebound that sent the crowd into a frenzy. It sent a message that Rutgers wasn't going away this time against its rivals from the north.
Delgado was called for traveling on the next possession and Baker hit a jumper to tie the game as Rutgers was on a 11-1 run.
After a Delgado dunk that ended the Hall's scoreless drought, Freeman made just 2 of 4 from the line, but tied the game again at 54 and 8:58 remaining.
As he had all game, Myles Powell killed Rutgers from behind the arc and made his fourth three of the game to ignite a 9-0 run by Seton Hall in a 2:27 stretch that Rutgers went 0 for 6 from the field. Pikiell was forced to call a timeout after another Powell jumper, trailing 63-54 with 6:01 to play. And then everything changed.
Once again, Rutgers responded out of the timeout, with Freeman and Sanders each scoring a basket to cut the lead to five points with under five minutes to play. After the under-four timeout, Baker got the steal and found Omoruyi for a layup in transition. Baker then stole it again on the next possession and Omoruyi was fouled on an offensive rebound. He made one of two, but the Hall turned it over for a third straight possession and Rutgers tied it on a Corey Sanders jumper from the top of the key. Hall coach Kevin Williard called timeout with 2:31 to play and the RAC was rocking. It was just the beginning.
Corey Sanders came up with the loose ball and was fouled on the defensive end. He made both free throws to give Rutgers a 65-63 lead with just over two minutes left in the game. Seton Hall hadn't scored in almost four minutes. It was Corey Sanders again who hit another huge jumper to give Rutgers its largest lead of the game at that point, one in which they never surrendered. He came up with another loose ball on the defensive end and Rutgers called timeout with the ball. Seton Hall hadn't scored in over 5 minutes and Rutgers was on a 13-0 run.
Powell then made two free throws to cut the lead to 2 points. Omoruyi found Freeman near the rim, who got fouled right as the shot clock was expiring. He made 1 of 2. The Hall were down 3 with 20 seconds to play. Powell finally missed a contested three and with a battle for the rebound, who else but senior captain Mike Williams who grabbed the ball out of the air in heavy traffic. He made 1 of 2 from the line, giving Rutgers an improbable 69-65 lead with 7.7 seconds to play. After Omoruyi was taken down due to a flagrant foul by Powell, he iced the victory by making both free throws and Rutgers won by six, as the students stormed the court to celebrate the comeback win.
Rutgers simply wanted this game more and willed themselves to victory down the stretch, never backing down from its rival as they continued to fall behind near double digits several times in this game. Rutgers shot just 34.3% in the game, but still won, as a major key in this win was Rutgers holding a +10 turnover margin (18 by SHU), as well as 18-7 edge in points off of turnovers. Seton Hall shot 41.3% from the field and even beat Rutgers at its own game, holding a +6 edge with points in the paint and second chance points. It didn't matter, as this team stuck together and pulled out the victory.
For Seton Hall, Powell led the team with 18 points, Desi Rodriguez had 15 and Angel Delgado had 7 points and 21 rebounds in the loss.
It took heroic efforts from several players for Rutgers to pull off the dramatic upset. Aside from Sanders making big play after big play down the stretch, Geo Baker showed up in a major way in his first rivalry game. He finished with 17 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds, including several huge jumpers in the second half. Deshawn Freeman had 12 points, but struggled with a 3 of 14 shooting performance. However, he was a warrior on the inside and grabbed a season high 16 rebounds. Eugene Omoruyi came up big in the second half as well, finishing with 10 points and 9 rebounds, making several big free throws. In terms of intangibles and effort, Mike Williams was a huge part in the comeback down the stretch and finished with 5 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals.
It was a classic rivalry game and an unbelievable effort by this Rutgers team. Easily the most spirited play we've seen from this program in many years. After playing six games in fourteen days, Rutgers (10-3) has a much needed break and won't play its next contest until Friday at the RAC against Stony Brook (4-8), coach Pikiell's former team. There is no doubt that close losses to Florida State and #2 Michigan State earlier this season paid dividends in this game. Rutgers learned how to finish off a better team at the RAC and it was glorious to watch. This team continues to improve and play well together. With just over a third of this campaign complete, it should be a very fun and interesting rest of the season for the Rutgers men's basketball program.
For Dave White's Four Thoughts, click here.
To watch Brian Fonseca and I discuss this victory after the game, click here.
The biggest @RutgersMBB win of the Steve Pikiell era: 71-65 over No. 15 Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic. Corey Sanders (22 pts) Deshawn Freeman (12 pts, 16 rebs) Mike Williams and @CoachPikiell recap the huge victory: pic.twitter.com/a3hz4BFmnk— RVision (@RVisionRU) December 16, 2017