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Cold Shooting Spoils Rutgers Upset Bid Against No. 3 Michigan State

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Strong defensive display among positives to pull from loss

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Rutgers
Just as Geo Baker did on this steal attempt, Rutgers came up just a bit short against No. 3 Michigan State.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY — Steve Pikiell’s biggest takeaway from Rutgers’ recent 89-67 loss to No. 12 Minnesota was simple.

“We got to get some shots to fall,” he told WCTC’s Chris Carlin in a postgame radio interview.

It looked like his team got the message early on in Tuesday night’s battle against No. 3 Michigan State.

The Scarlet Knights hit three of their first five shots en route to a surprising 8-0 lead in front of a rocking student section.

But the juice caused by that run soon ran out. Rutgers went on to miss 14 of their next 16 shots, including a number of chip shots in front of the rim. It was one of many cold stretches for the Scarlet Knights on a night they shot 26 percent from the floor.

There were some moments where that energy returned — like when the Scarlet Knights tied it up at 26 heading into the half, and when they retook the lead with 13 minutes to go. In the end, however, those long stretches without buckets doomed Rutgers in the end as its upset bid fell short in a 62-52 loss.

“I thought we missed some good looks, too,” Pikiell said. “We had some opportunities too to blow this thing a little more open for us and cut the lead. You’ve got to make the open ones. Sometimes when you go at a team with big men you get a little excited and get into some areas which are tough, and they had great length obviously. That obviously caused us problems and with the shot clock going down we’ve got guys that attack the rim, that’s what they do and that’s what you’re susceptible to.”

The silver lining for the Scarlet Knights is that, in spite of a horrendous shooting performance, they simply would not go away. Tuesday night marked Michigan State’s smallest win of the season, as the Spartans were averaging a win margin of 23 points.

Entering the game as 14-point underdogs, the Scarlet Knights never trailed by more than 10 the entire night, and that is thanks to an impressive defensive effort.

After putting forth what Pikiell called an “awful” defensive performance against Minnesota, Rutgers held Michigan State to 39 percent shooting and almost as many turnovers (13) as assists (15).

Yes, Miles Bridges got 19 points, but he did the same to Duke — the NBA lottery pick is almost always going to get his numbers.

Two years after it suffered losses of 34 and 33 points to the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights held their own against the top-tier, blue blood program.

“I thought on the defensive end we certainly did some good things,” Pikiell said. “We were even on the backboards. They’ve been kind of manhandling teams on the backboards … I thought we did a decent job on (Nick) Ward. He’s been on a tear, shooting 68.2 percent from the floor. Pretty much every time he touches it, it’s a basket.”

Following a brutal stretch of games against the top two teams in the Big Ten and a Florida State team that’s about to be ranked, Rutgers now begins the second half of its far softer non-conference schedule. The Scarlet Knights host NJIT on Thursday with hopes of ending their current three-game skid.

“Proud of our guys and proud of our effort,” Pikiell said. “We didn’t play great either and that’s a positive for us having played the best team in the country. I think we had a lot more in the tank. We learned a lot in these last couple of games and we’ll be back at it tomorrow. Got some more games coming up and we’ll continue to grow.”

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Fonseca Four Observations:

  1. The Students Showed Up Again

It may be a repetitive point, but after dreadful attendance numbers over the past two seasons, it is impressive to see the interest from the student body. The student section was packed once again for the No. 3 Spartans, even more so than the raucous crowd that came out for last week’s bout with Florida State.

There were moments where the RAC was deafening — like when Mike Williams hit a long two (that everyone thought was a three) to cut Michigan State’s lead to 42-40 with nine minutes to go. Kudos to the students for not letting a pair of losses deter them from returning.

“It gives us more energy, even more energy, lifts us up, motivates us,” said sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi of the crowd. “I feel like it’s our booster and we need that energy sometimes.”

2) Rutgers three-guard line-up may be its best

With Rutgers down five at the under-four media timeout of the first half, Steve Pikiell turned to his small-ball, three-guard line-up of Corey Sanders, Geo Baker, Mike Williams, Eugene Omoruyi and Deshawn Freeman. The results were as good as he could have hoped for — the Scarlet Knights went on a 7-0 run to retake the lead.

“Coach is always trying to mix around line-ups, trying to confuse the defense. That line-up happened to work a little bit at the end of the half,” freshman guard Geo Baker said. “Spacing was really good and that’s definitely something we’re going to keep doing.”

While it isn’t the solution to Rutgers shooting woes, it certainly is a viable option which should be used more often.

““We had to adjust a lot and move some people around too. Guys were tired too. So, you have to substitute,” Pikiell said of the switch to the three-guard line-up. “It’s a high-paced game. They put a lot of pressure on you defensively and offensively. We’re trying every lineup that we can and the ones I feel good about. We’re also substituting for defensive reasons too.”

3) Geo Baker Was Feasting Early

The freshman guard was on a rough stretch entering Tuesday night. In three games against East Carolina, Florida State and Minnesota, Baker shot a combined 6-for-27 and scored just 22 points.

He quickly shook it off in the biggest game of his young career. Baker feasted from midrange early and often, hitting five of his first seven shots from the floor.

“Just my teammates,” Baker said of how he got in rhythm. “They told me to keep shooting, that the midrange was open and once I saw that open, I was going to take it.”

He didn’t finish quite as strongly, missing his final six attempts from the floor. Even still, he finished with a decent 11 points on a night in which he demonstrated a capability to get hot. All that’s missing is consistency.

4) Corey Sanders, Not So Much

The junior guard opened the game as well as anyone could hope. After Deshawn Freeman picked Cassius Winston’s pocket, Sanders sprinted to the other end and hit a three-pointer on Rutgers first field goal attempt of the game.

It went downhill from there.

Sanders finished with 6 points on 2-for-15 shooting, with both his made attempts coming from three-point land. He had a lot of trouble driving inside, accounting for a number of Michigan State’s 13 blocks while not attempting a single free throw on the night.

Rutgers needs more out of Sanders — and frankly, the rest of its veterans — to find success moving forward.

No one knows that more than Sanders, who was the first Scarlet Knights out on the court after the game, putting up shots less than 20 minutes after the final buzzer.

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Killer Quotes:

“It’s encouraging because we’re just a few steps closer. We’ll get there, I feel like we’ll get there … I don’t feel like anything is missing. It’s a growing process and we’re learning game-by-game … it just takes one game to turn the season around. That’s how I see it.” — sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi on Rutgers playing a national title contender tight

“You can’t take a possession off, I think that was the biggest thing. There were a couple little things that I did wrong like not boxing out a couple of times and it’s just stuff like that, little things they’re going to get baskets off of. So everyone has to do little things if we really want to win big games like this.” — freshman guard Geo Baker on what he learned from playing a top-3 team

“I was impressed with how this Rutgers team played. I think Steve [Pikiell] does a great job. We knew this was going to be a war, like an old-fashioned Big Ten game. The rebounds ended up being even, but they hurt us on the offensive end. We played sluggish from the beginning, that I don’t give Rutgers credit for, we just didn’t push the ball.” — Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo

To read Dave White’s Four Thoughts on the game, click here. To read Aaron Breitman’s analysis on the recent three game stretch, click here.