It wasn’t deja vu all over again for the Rutgers men’s basketball team against Hartford, who returned to action Thursday night after last Friday’s overtime loss to Stony Brook. After the Scarlet Knights came from behind by 13 points with five minutes to play to escape with a victory over Hartford last season, a heroic effort from senior captain Mike Williams wasn’t enough for Rutgers to pull out this game, losing 60-58. It’s an absolute awful defeat and one that is inexcusable for this team after the way they played to a 10-3 start this season. They’ll resume Big Ten play next week on a once unthinkable two game losing streak. Stony Brook is a solid mid-major, but Hartford is one of the worst teams in the country. The rebuild and this Rutgers squad has officially hit a brick wall during the holiday season.
Rutgers was down 11-6 just five minutes into the game and after a 3 minute scoreless stretch soon after, the Scarlet Knights trailed Hartford 16-8 with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. Corey Sanders was on the sidelines up until this point, benched for a disciplinary reason. Sanders had posted on his instagram account this week that he had missed his flight back from Florida returning to campus after the Christmas break. The same thing happened last season and Pikiell benched him for a similar period in the first game afterwards, which was the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin. Pikiell confirmed after the game that was the reason for him coming off the bench in this game, as Sanders missed practice due to the missed flight. Souf Mensah started in the place of Sanders tonight, which certainly contributed to the poor start to this game.
The good news is that when Sanders did enter the game and his team trailing by 8 points, he came out focused and made an immediate impact. He made his first two shots from the floor and soon after, Geo Baker found Mike Williams for a three-pointer to tie the game in a three minute stretch that Hartford was also held scoreless.
An Issa Thiam three-pointer gave Rutgers a 19-18 lead and they continued to push the pace, grabbing its largest lead of the night at 27-20 on a Deshawn Freeman dunk.
The lead was built behind another four minute scoreless stretch from Hartford and Rutgers completed a 19-4 run after trailing by 8 points before Sanders entered the game. However, the frustrating part was that Rutgers failed to close the half strong, as Hartford ended it on a 7-2 run and trailed by just 2 points at the break. The visiting Hawks committed 13 first half turnovers and shot an unimpressive 40% from the field, but Rutgers shot just 31% from the floor and were only even on the boards (20-20). The Scarlet Knights played very well in the middle of the opening frame, but a poor start and end to it made it a closer game heading into the locker room than it should have been.
They didn’t start off any better after the break, as Hartford came out on a 12-6 run and Steve Pikiell called a timeout at the 15:15 mark of the second frame. The timeout didn’t help either, as Rutgers was mired in over a five minute scoring drought. Hartford was in their own three minute scoreless streak and the score remained 39-35 Hawks for a solid stretch in the second half. This was the epitome of an ugly basketball game.
It got uglier for the scarlet faithful, as Hartford took a 43-36 lead with 11:27 to play behind a John Carroll jumper. Issa Thiam’s third three-pointer of the game cut the lead to four, but Hartford answered on a Jason Dunne layup. Rutgers was outrebounded 14-4 at this point in the second half and was a terrible 4 of 14 from the free throw line for the game so far. That’s simply an inexcusable performance in both areas against one of the worst teams in the country.
Down 46-39 at the midway point of the second half, Rutgers woke up in the unlikeliest of places. Deshawn Freeman and Eugene Omoruyi both made a pair of free throws to cut the lead to three points at the under-8 timeout. Rutgers was still without a field goal for the previous 3:34 of action, but kept it close by holding Hartford scoreless for almost three minutes of play. John Carroll hit back to back jumpers, including one from behind the arc and Rutgers was in serious trouble, trailing 50-43 with 7:09 to play.
Mike Williams answered with a big jumper and he responded again, making a huge three-pointer to cut the lead to 50-48 with 5:17 to play. After both teams traded baskets, Williams then scored another 5 points and gave Rutgers a 55-53 lead with 2:39 to play. However, they couldn’t hold the lead.
With Rutgers trailing 57-55, Eugene Omoruyi initially drew a foul, but the call was reversed after a lengthy review and it was ruled an offensive charge. John Carroll scored a layup on the next possession and Hartford led by four points with 1:11 left in the game. Corey Sanders was fouled on a three-point attempt by Hassan Attia, who punished Rutgers all night with a 11 point, 9 rebound, 6 block effort. Sanders made all three and Rutgers trailed 59-58 with 41 seconds remaining.
Williams continued to will Rutgers, grabbing several key rebounds, including Hartford’s miss in the final minute and then wrestled the ball away on a Corey Sanders miss with 14 seconds to play. Rutgers maintained possession and called a timeout to setup the final sequence. However, the Scarlet Knights never got a shot off, something Rutgers fans have witnessed too many times over the years. Sanders drove but dished out to Geo Baker, who lost the ball and fouled Hartford, who won 60-58, stunning the home faithful.
Mike Williams finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds. This game wouldn’t have even been as close if it weren’t for his effort down the stretch. Corey Sanders led the team with 17 points on 5 of 12 shooting, but let his teammates down by missing his flight back from Christmas for the second year in a row. Pikiell did the right thing by benching him at the start, but everyone paid dearly for it. Deshawn Freeman had a quiet 10 points and 7 rebounds. Freshman Geo Baker looked tired and scored just 2 points on 1 of 6 shooting. Issa Thiam scored 9 points, all on three-point baskets, but it wasn’t enough.
Rutgers finished the non-conference schedule with an 10-3 record after tonight’s defeat, one game worse than last season. It’s obvious that this team is limited on the offensive end and they are frustratingly inconsistent because of it. When they aren’t at the top of its game defensively and on the glass, this team is susceptible against any opponent.
The lack of fight from this team tonight was most disturbing. They had a -5 rebounding margin and seemed to be playing in mud. There was no juice and while they held Hartford to 60 points, the Hawks shot a respectable 46% from the field. On the other hand, Rutgers shot just 34% from the field and were only 12 of 22 from the free throw line, which cost them dearly in this game. While Rutgers held a +11 turnover margin, they failed to take advantage, holding only a 10-7 edge in points off of turnovers. Hartford beat them at their own game, owning a 8-4 edge in second chance points and 22-14 edge in points in the paint. Rutgers was flummoxed by the 1-3-1 zone of Hartford.
Rutgers has to continue to improve and quickly, as only Big Ten competition remains the rest of the regular season. The Scarlet Knights head back on the road for only it’s second game away from the RAC all season, visiting #14 Purdue (12-2, 2-0) on Wednesday, January 3rd. It’s the first of two meetings between the two programs this season.
After a glorious victory over Seton Hall 12 days ago, it now seems like a lifetime after these two losses. It’s been a tough stretch in terms of this team being out of its routine with finals and Christmas, but every college basketball program is dealing with the same challenges. Pikiell and the staff need to find a way for this team to regroup and refocus or it could get ugly in Big Ten play. The quest for the program’s first winning season in 12 years just got a lot harder for this team.