This was one of the strangest games I’ve seen in a long time and one you have to be encouraged by if you are a Rutgers fan. Please don’t have delusions that Rutgers can consistently shoot the way they did tonight from three-point range in the first half, because this was a “once in a blue moon” type of performance. Unfortunately, it was wasted against an extremely good Purdue team. Their size in the paint and ability to dominate the glass, while having multiple shooters at their disposal, will make them a very dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. The important thing is Rutgers fought and battled all night, even though the score wasn’t close the final ten minutes of the game in what ended up a 74-55 loss.
Last season, this program completely quit in an embarrassing 50 point loss at home to Purdue, in a game that the Boilermakers grabbed more rebounds (63) than Rutgers scored points (57). Tonight, Rutgers was down 25-12 after a Carsen Edwards three-pointer in which Purdue passed the basketball like a work of art to find him with a little more than 8 minutes left in the half. It seemed like things were about to fall apart, which would have been disheartening, but the talent discrepancy was massive in this game and it wouldn’t have been shocking.
Instead, Rutgers kept plugging away and Nigel Johnson stepped forward with a huge first half, making all four of his three-point attempts. He sparked the team’s best half shooting from behind the arc all season, as they were 6 of 11 at the break. Corey Sanders and Deshawn Freeman each made one as well. Purdue, the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten at 42%, went cold and missed their last seven attempts of the half, after starting 5 of 7 from deep. They were just 5 of 14 from behind the arc for 36% at the break. Regardless, Purdue owned the boards and shot 45% overall from the field, dominating the paint and were all over the glass. Rutgers struggled to get much inside on offense and despite the hot start from three, still only shot 36% overall from the floor. The Boilermakers led 33-26 at halftime.
After the break, a CJ Gettys jumper cut the Purdue lead to 4 points at 35-31. The issue was inside, as the impressive big man duo of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas took over the game. Swanigan is a double-double machine and registered his 22nd of the season tonight, finishing with 12 points and 17 rebounds. The top rebounder in the Big Ten was a force that Rutgers simply couldn’t handle on the glass. Haas was more dominate on the offensive end and led all scorers with 24 points on 9 of 11 shooting, as well as 11 rebounds. Rutgers had no answers for them and Purdue finished the game with a +17 rebounding margin. They manhandled Rutgers in the thing they do best.
The officials certainly didn’t help Rutgers in that second half and amazingly, they took only three free throw attempts in the game, making just 1-3. Regardless, Rutgers isn’t going to get calls on the road in the Big Ten until they start to win. That's why coach Pikiell has been preaching the importance of toughness, as they need to overcome such obstacles if they want to be successful on the road.
It’s ashame that Rutgers wasn’t able to capitalize on Nigel Johnson’s career high output of 23 points on 9 of 17 shooting, including a red hot 5 of 6 from three point range. After a few quiet games fighting back from the leg bruise, Johnson busted out in a big way and looked to be in a zone. He shot freely and looked totally locked in. Unfortunately, he didn’t get many looks early in the second half and no one else was able to step up on offense for Rutgers, other than Deshawn Freeman, who played relatively well on that end of the floor. He finished with 12 points on 5 of 10 shooting, while adding 5 boards and 2 steals. No one else scored in double figures, as Corey Sanders was third on the team with 7 points on just 3 of 14 shooting from the floor. He had a off night and never looked comfortable in this game.
The point is despite a big discrepancy in talent and playing their tenth Big Ten game away from the RAC in their last fourteen, Rutgers never quit. This team plays with true grit and it is pleasing to see them fight their hearts out against the Big Ten elite. That was the single most crushing result of last season, watching this team lay down on most nights. This season has been completely different and tonight was just another example of the positive direction this program is headed under coach Pikiell.
Next up for Rutgers is their last road game of the regular season this Saturday at Northwestern. The Wildcats are on a roll after beating Wisconsin Sunday night and are on the verge of making their first NCAA Tournament appearance ever. The game is already sold out and will be another difficult matchup for Rutgers. They lost to Northwestern by 9 points at the RAC in mid-January, so it will take a huge effort to give them a scare.