Games like tonight are why the phrase “a win is a win is a win” exists, because it was a real struggle for Rutgers in its third contest in five days. However, they were still able to grind their way to a 73-64 victory behind suffocating defense and some out of character lights out shooting in the second half.
It certainly didn’t start the way head coach Steve Pikiell hoped that it would. Rutgers fell behind 7-0 in the first 3 minutes after committing 4 turnovers. Pikiell even called a timeout one minute into the action after NJIT scored two quick baskets to open the game. It took most of the first half for Rutgers to get going, but they never held a bigger lead than 4 points in the opening frame. The weirdness of this game could be typified by the fact that the Scarlet Knights made 14 of 25 shots for 56% in the first half and held NJIT to just 37%, but RU committed 11 turnovers, one more than they had in the entire game against #3 Michigan State on Tuesday night. While five players scored between 5 to 7 points in the first half, Rutgers held only a +3 rebounding edge against a much smaller Highlander squad.
After the under-16 timeout after the break, Rutgers was leading 41-38 when Corey Sanders made a pretty bounce pass to a cutting Mike Williams, who finished at the rim and picked up the foul. He completed the three-point play from the line and Rutgers doubled its lead, never relinquishing control of the game the rest of the way. That play helped Sanders get hot on the offensive end and Rutgers went on a 15-4 run during a stretch that NJIT was held without a field goal for over 6 minutes, missing 12 straight shots. Rutgers led 56-42 and finally looked comfortable during what was a sloppy performance up until that game defining stretch.
The wear and tear of this week took a toll on the Scarlet Knights, who tired the last five minutes of the game. NJIT continued to battle and instituted a full court press that kept the score relatively close. Rutgers failed to score a field goal in the final 4:36 of the game and NJIT got within 8 points of the lead. However, the defense ramped back up and the Highlanders made just 1 of their last 7 shots in the game. On the night, NJIT shot just 30.7% from the field. They were led by Anthony Tarke, who scored 19 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Donovan Greer was the only other player on NJIT to reach double figures, finishing with 10 points.
Rutgers shot a scorching 60% from the field in the second half, despite the late slump, as well as a season best 58% in the game. If they didn't have a breakthrough performance shooting the ball, Rutgers could have easily lost.
Deshawn Freeman, who came into the contest shooting just 36.5% from the floor on the season, made 6 of 8 attempts tonight. He scored 13 points, but had just 2 rebounds. Sanders also came into this game having yet to find his form shooting this season, entering the game making just 33% from the field. However, he made 8 of 15 attempts for a team high 18 points, as he was able to get good looks off of penetration in the second half. He added 3 assists and 3 boards as well.
The balanced scoring continued for Rutgers, as Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker added 11 points each. Issa Thiam and Mike Williams chipped in with 9 points each, while the duo also combined for 11 rebounds. Baker was the only player who took more than 1 shot in the game for the Scarlet Knights that made less than 50% of their attempts. Credit the freshman guard for contributing in other ways, as he added 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in the game.
It was also great to see backup center Candido Sa have his best game of the season off the bench, as he was a defensive force, grabbing a team high 8 rebounds and blocking 3 shots.
This game was not without it’s warts though, as Rutgers committed a season high 19 turnovers, as Geo Baker had 6 and Mike Williams had 4. In addition, NJIT pulled down 23 offensive rebounds on the night. In fact, just two days after holding their own on the boards against Michigan State with an even mark (45-45), the visiting Highlanders held a +2 edge in this game versus Rutgers. After excellent shooting from the free throw line the past three games (79% on 56 attempts), Rutgers regressed with a disappointing 12 of 23 performance.
The positives were that Rutgers dominated in the paint, holding a +12 edge in that area and they took a lot of high percentage shots and actually made a lot of them in the game to finish at 58%. The rim looked pretty wide without the trees of the Big Ten to deal with and it was encouraging to see Rutgers finally have a great shooting night from the field.
Next up for Rutgers (7-3) will be its fourth game in seven days on Saturday night against another traditionally pesky local team in Fairleigh Dickinson (3-5). The last two meetings between the programs have resulted in the following for Rutgers: an 8 point win and a 13 point win. Four seasons ago FDU won at the RAC. Like tonight’s game, it won’t be easy, but it’s a must win for this team that is very much still a work in progress. However, they broke a three game losing streak tonight and gutted out a victory that they needed to have. Getting Corey Sanders going was key as well. It wasn’t pretty, but it kept things moving in the right direction, which is the most important thing.