PISCATAWAY — The moment the ball left Myles Powell’s hands, the electricity in the air at the Rutgers Athletic Center dipped for a second as the crowd held its breath. The Seton Hall sophomore hit some tough shots in the first half of Saturday’s Garden State Hardwood Classic, and with nine seconds to play and his team down three to Rutgers, this would be the biggest of the bunch.
The shot hit back iron. Then the front of the rim. Then the backboard. Then the front of the rim again. The ball came off the rim, got tipped up in the air a couple of times before Mike Williams — perhaps the smallest player on the court — grabbed the rebound that sealed the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era, a 71-65 upset of the No. 15 Pirates.
Myles Powell. Brick city. Rutgers is about to upset Seton Hall. pic.twitter.com/7s13xxHTGA— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) December 16, 2017
It was only fitting that the guard who withstood three straight losses to his team’s most bitter rival, who suffered through two consecutive 15+ game losing streaks at the start of his college career, who changed his game from a shooter to a hard-nosed, do-it-all energy guy would grab the biggest board in recent Rutgers history.
“It was probably the biggest rebound ever,” Williams said. “I showed a lot of emotion when I grabbed it because I wanted this game so bad. Even though I realized my shot wasn’t going in, I realized me playing defense and getting rebounds would be a key to this game and that rebound is probably the biggest one of my career here. You saw my face, it was just surreal.
“I don’t have words to describe this feeling. Like you said, the last three years, [a win against Seton Hall] has eluded me, so for me to get it in front of our fans, it was the best feeling in the world. I’m just thankful for this moment.”
Williams was fouled immediately after he corralled the rebound and sent to the free throw line, where he hit one of two to completely ice the win. It was the final point of a remarkable 17-2 run to close the game, one which featured some of the biggest made shots the RAC has seen in a long time.
No question the biggest was from Corey Sanders, the team’s leading scorer with 22 points on the day. After he hit a jumper to tie the game at 63 and followed it up with two free throws to give Rutgers its first lead of the game at 65-63 with two minutes to play, Sanders did this.
Game, Set, Match.
“We’ve been watching tape on Delgado and he doesn’t come out on screens and I feel like that’s a part of the game I’ve been working on very urgently,” Sanders said of his late-game heroics. “I’ve been in the gym every day working on those pull-up shots and he was leaving them open, leaving on the table so I stepped in, took the big-time shot. Big-time players make big-time plays. I did that today and hopefully I can keep doing that.”
From there, the celebration began.
Rutgers upsets No. 15 Seton Hall 71-65. Welcome to the first court storm of the Steve Pikiell era. pic.twitter.com/azXoowAqmw— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) December 16, 2017
Fonseca’s Extended Observations
1. This Team Does Not Quit
What a tough, gritty performance from the Scarlet Knights.
There is no denying that when Seton Hall shot out to a 22-11 lead midway through the first half, Rutgers fans were thinking “oh no, not again.” The Pirates were hitting every single tough shot, the Scarlet Knights were struggling to answer back, but they just kept fighting.
The home side reduced Seton Hall’s lead to six with 50 seconds to play until the half, but mistakes allowed the Pirates to extend their lead to 10 at the break. Rutgers wasn’t discouraged and shot out of the gates in the second half with a 20-10 run to tie the game at 52.
Seton Hall then went on an 11-2 run that would’ve broken the back of many Scarlet Knight teams in the past.
Not this one.
Rutgers again fought back and went on the 17-2 run over the final six minutes of the game that its fans will talk about for many years to come.
This team has a lot of flaws, many of which were on display against the Hall. The Scarlet Knights shot just 34 percent, had just six combined assists and got blocked seven times. The rebound margin, which they usually need to dominate in order to pull out wins, was even.
But one thing this team has is a winners attitude.
“We’re going to fight,” said senior guard Mike Williams. “Like I said, even before the season started, I feel like we have a never-say-die attitude. We have a real blue-collar team. We’re going to outwork you. We can’t take any plays off. When we went down nine, I wasn’t nervous, I wasn’t upset … I told the guys ‘look, we’ve been here before, down nine. It’s our house, what we need to do is make three stops in a row, and we have to convert and we’ll be fine. And that’s exactly what we did. We chipped away, chipped away, chipped away. We ended on a 17-2 run.”
2) Corey Sanders Played His Best Game
What a week for Corey Sanders.
After he scored his 1,000th career point against Fordham on Tuesday — an accomplishment which was honored pregame Saturday when Athletic Director Pat Hobbs presented Sanders with a commemorative ball — Sanders had his best game as a Scarlet Knight in the program’s biggest win in a long time, bar none.
Sure, he scored more points against Illinois in that triple-overtime thriller his freshman year, a game he called his favorite memory on the Banks just last week. He led Rutgers to its first Big Ten road win last year at Penn State. He’s put up some big numbers in the past.
But nothing compares to his performance against Seton Hall, where he simply took over down the stretch, hitting some clutch shots and playing hard-nosed defense to help keep the Pirates to two points in the final six minutes.
Video: Corey Sanders talks about his Joe Calabrese MVP caliber performance and how he was able to hit those big-time shots late: pic.twitter.com/sOCgdzHG4Q— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) December 16, 2017
Sanders started off hot, hitting his first four shots from the floor. He finished the first half as the game’s leading scorer with 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Sanders started slow in the second half before taking over down the stretch. His performance earned him the Joe Calabrese Most Valuable Player.
He celebrated countless times when the game was in hand, constantly waving his hands up to the crowd, his worries of the noise splitting his eardrum far gone as he took in the atmosphere of the moment.
Before the wave of fans who stormed the court at the final buzzer dispersed, Sanders stood on the scorers table at the RAC and the kid from Florida had his Dwyane Wade moment.
3) Angel Delgado Was Defended Perfectly
Angel Delgado put up an impressive day on the boards against Rutgers, racking up an astounding 20 rebounds — a stat that left Corey Sanders surprised, to say the least.
But what Delgado did in cleaning up the boards, he did not do in putting the ball in the bucket. The Dominican Double-Double machine failed to put up double-digit points for the first time in a month, notching just 7 points on 3-for-9 shooting. It marked the second time this season he didn’t reach double-digit points.
His struggles were caused by a strong defensive effort from the collection of Rutgers bigs.
Between Shaquille Doorson, Candido Sa, Deshawn Freeman and Eugene Omoruyi, Delgado was put in positions where he never really looked comfortable. He turned the ball over four times, a couple of which were travels he picked up trying to get in proper post position.
“I thought we did a good job on him,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “They’re a team you kind of have to pick your poison a little bit. He’s as good a passer there is, so we didn’t get into any double-teaming action. We just tried to get him off the block and make it tough for him to catch. Candido came in and gave us good minutes ... He’s a good player and we made it tough for him to get touches.”
Perhaps most encouraging for the Scarlet Knights is that starting center Mamadou Doucoure played just seven minutes and they were still able to contain Delgado.
Speaking of Doucoure…
4) Doucoure Struggled
Not to be a party pooper, but it would be disingenous if I didn’t include at least one negative observation.
It was not the best outing for Mamadou.
The freshman started off on the wrong foot from the start, getting pulled after two minutes of action thanks to a series of mistakes. First, he forced a difficult shot with plenty of time on the shot clock. On the other end, he was physically dominated by Delgado. On the next defensive position, he found himself stuck in no mans land between closing out an open shooter on the perimeter or boxing out for the rebound by the rim. He did neither and Seton Hall got the rebound and the putback.
He returned later in the first half, but only lasted a couple more minutes. One glaring example why was his struggle to contain Myles Powell (or any one of Seton Hall’s guards, for that matter) when switched to them on a pick-and-roll.
As I’ve mentioned before on this space, Doucoure is young and has a lot of room to grow. Steve Pikiell felt that Saturday was not the best classroom for him.
5) Baker played like a vet
Geo Baker had his finest game to date at the perfect time. The freshman was the one who tied the game at 52 to complete a 20-10 run for Rutgers out of the half. He didn’t hit a shot after that point, but his defensive effort in the final stretch of the game despite playing all 20 minutes of the second half was both vital and admirable.
Not to be overlooked was a deep three as the shot clock expired early in that 20-10 run, as well as an additional four assists, four rebounds, a key steal late in the game and just one turnover on his statline.
But there was one play that stood out more than others, and it didn’t show up on the statsheet.
With 35+ minutes on his legs, Baker hustled back on defense like his life depended on it. That’s commitment to the program, a burning desire to win. That is a Steve Pikiell guard. That is how Rutgers won this game.
6) Rutgers Turned Seton Hall Over
The Scarlet Knights forced the turnover-prone Pirates into 18 giveaways on the day. From multiple travel calls to a couple of interceptions and charging calls, Rutgers was all over Seton Hall looking to take it away, especially in the second half.
“I thought turnovers really hurt us,” said Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard. “We had some tough turnovers that led to them getting some easy buckets, and getting momentum. I thought we did a good job when the score got 54-54, in that range, of running offense and not turning it over. I thought we turned it over in the last six minutes and that gave them some easy buckets. That gave them momentum and (Corey) Sanders hit some tough shots.”
7) Freeman Forced It
Balancing this out with some more negativity (sorry).
With Rutgers tied with Seton Hall at 52, the Scarlet Knights needed a bucket to take their first lead of the game. Deshawn Freeman wanted that bucket a little too much.
The senior captain surely intended well but he chose the wrong option — himself — on a couple of possessions when Rutgers could have pushed through and taken its first lead.
Freeman made up for it later with the first bucket in a closing 17-2 run for the Scarlet Knights, but the home side could have resolved the game much sooner had Freeman been a bit more selfless.
On the positive side, this is the nicest stat I’ve ever seen.
8) Seton Hall is good
As much as Rutgers fans won’t want to admit it, credit needs to be given where it’s due — the Pirates are an incredible basketball team. Angel Delgado is a top-5 big in the country, Myles Powell is an absolute stud who will be the class of the Big East in a year and both Desi Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington are dependable seniors who can get a bucket when its needed.
That team has Final Four potential. The second weekend of the tournament should be the minimum expectation for the Pirates. Which makes the Scarlet Knights upset all that more impressive.
9) The RAC is back
Folks, it’s officially time to say it — the RAC is back. Just ask Myles Mack.
The biggest crowd at the RAC since 2002 — 8,318 — brought it to the Garden State Hardwood Classic.
The moment Geo Baker hit a mid-range jumper to tie the game at 52 was the loudest I’ve ever heard the building. The next couple of defensive possessions were deafening. I’ve never seen an atmosphere like that at a Rutgers sporting event.
The moment Mike Williams sealed the game with a rebound and subsequent free throw? Forget about me describing that, there aren’t enough words for it.
“I think the first game I coached here, there were 1,800 fans. So I would say this was the most fans to watch a game here at the RAC since 2002. To have a place like that, it’s a credit to these guys. They made this a game. These are the guys who believed in us a year ago and stayed the course. It’s a credit to Seton Hall’s program, too, who are a ranked team, and it’s a credit to our fans that came out. It was unbelievable.”
Kudos to the fans who came out. With nights like that in the stands, there will be plenty of top teams knocked off their perch on the court at the RAC for years to come.
10) What An Ending.
Whenever you’re sad, just watch this:
Play of the Game:
Most point towards Corey Sanders’ clutch mid-range jumper as the play of the game, which is certainly a fair selection.
For me, no play beats this one.
It encapsulated Rutgers almost perfectly — two missed three-pointers recovered by hustle from Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi, finished with a second-change point opportunity off an offensive rebound. The only difference was this putback was in style.
This was also the moment I felt the real magic of the RAC for the first time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t almost jump out of my seat and run onto the court and throwing down a dunk right after this happened.
Ish Sanogo on the atmosphere at the RAC: "It was alright ... we've played at louder places."— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) December 16, 2017
Myles Powell adds: "The (Prudential Center) louder."
“We’ve been in games, plugging away and have been close, and I thought we had tremendous poise down the stretch. Corey [Sanders] and Mike [Williams] with some rebounds and [Deshawn Freeman], we grabbed every big rebound down the stretch. I thought our defense was really good. You know, the last six minutes of the game, I thought we had a good game plan and they executed it. That’s a good positive against a really good basketball team with a lot of experience and a lot of weapons. It’s a very good day for Rutgers nation,” -- Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell
“(Rutgers) just wanted it more in the end,” -- Seton Hall forward Ish Sanogo on the final stretch.
“It’s a rivalry game, that’s how it’s supposed to be. We’re not out there to be friends, we’re not out there to be buddy-buddy. I don’t want to be friends with these guys at the end of the day. I don’t like anybody on their team. That’s how it’s supposed to be.” -- Seton Hall forward Ish Sanogo.
“When you have the enemy down and you have your foot on their neck, you just keep your foot on their neck and crush their throats. Don’t let them breathe the air. That’s exactly what we did. We let them breathe and they came back. Credit to them.” -- Seton Hall forward Ish Sanogo on lessons learned from the loss.
For Dave White’s four thoughts on the game, click here.
For Aaron Breitman’s piece on how this win can be the start of something special at Rutgers, click here.
For post-game analysis from Aaron Breitman and Brian Fonseca, click here.