Rutgers entered the game 11.5 point underdogs against a Northwestern team that beat them at the RAC by 9 points just over a month ago. The Wildcats were looking for their 20th win of the season and needed this victory to get them even closer to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. Welsh-Ryan arena was sold out and this was expected to be a major challenge for Rutgers in their last road game of the regular season.
Instead, the improbable happened for most of the game, as Rutgers outplayed Northwestern and kept the home faithful quiet for long stretches. The Scarlet Knights dominated on the boards, played stifling defense for most of the second half, and were shooting relatively well, which led to good scoring balance. Unfortunately, Rutgers couldn’t execute on offense down the stretch and blew a 4 point lead to lose 69-65. A tremendous effort was wasted, as growing pains in learning how to close out games continued.
With a 63-59 lead after CJ Gettys made two free throws with 3:07 to play, Northwestern stormed back and finished the game on a 10-2 run that included two huge three-pointers and making 4 of 6 from the free throw line. Bryant McIntosh, who scored a game high 18 points, hit a shot from behind the arc that gave them the lead for good here.
Rutgers had a chance to tie the game down 3 points and with the ball with 13 seconds left. Pikiell called timeout, but they never had a chance to run the play he called, as Corey Sanders coughed it up and Northwestern extended the lead to 4 points with 8 seconds remaining. Sanders did score a quick layup on the next possession, but two Isiah Brown free throws clinched it for the Wildcats. It was a terribly disappointing end in a game that Rutgers showed growth in, but couldn’t finally get over the hump in delivering the death blow when having a team on the ropes. This step is crucial if this team wants to finish the season on a high note.
In the first half, it was a role reversal, as Rutgers ran their offense efficiently and made jump shots, while doing a better job of attacking the rim as the opening frame progressed. With Deshawn Freeman picking up two fouls just six minutes into the game, Rutgers needed other players in the frontcourt to step up and they did. Although CJ Gettys struggled defensively, he put up 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Eugene Omoruyi played his best offensive stretch of his career in the first half, scoring 8 points on 4 of 4 shooting and grabbing 4 rebounds. Shaq Doorson also had a nice basket, big block, and found Mike Williams wide open for a big three-pointer.
They shot 50% from the field and 40% from three-point range. Nigel Johnson made 2 of 3 and picked up where he left off after a career high 23 points against Purdue to lead Rutgers with 10 points at the break. However, they struggled on the defensive end, as Northwestern was getting some easy baskets in the paint and shot 53% in the half.
Rutgers came out of the break and had the best start in the second half that they’ve had during conference play this season. They put together an 13-5 run and led 49-44 at the TV timeout with 11:00 minutes to play in the game. The defense stiffened and they clamped down on the boards, holding a 13-6 edge during this stretch. Northwestern didn’t score a field goal for over 6 minutes and Rutgers was silencing the sell out crowd.
With a 52-46 lead midway just past the midpoint of the second half, Omoruyi took a charge in the paint, leading the under-8 timeout. After Sanders missed a shot in traffic, Northwestern cut the lead to 4. On the next possession, Rutgers struggled to get a good shot, as Williams put up a tough jumper that missed. However, Omoruyi grabbed a huge rebound and layed it in to put the lead back at 6 points. The freshman played the best game of his career tonight, scoring 10 points, 8 in the first half, on 5 of 7 from the field, while grabbing 5 rebounds. He provided toughness on defense when Rutgers needed it, especially with Freeman limited with foul trouble.
At 56-53, Gettys was whistled for a questionable over the back call on offense and the lead was cut to 1 after two made Northwestern free throws. With Rutgers desperately needing a basket, Nigel Johnson hit a deep three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring to give Rutgers a 59-55 lead with just under 4 minutes to play. The problem was that Northwestern was in the bonus down the stretch and every Rutgers foul put them on the free throw line. They shot 13 of 16 in the second half from the charity stripe and finished the game at 76%. On the flip side, Rutgers struggled again, making just 6 of 12 from the line in the game, although they did make 4 in a row late in the game.
Despite the stomach punch loss for Rutgers, they showed real chops giving a good Northwestern team all they could handle. They were a disaster in this arena almost exactly a year ago, when they lost 98-59 to the Wildcats. It was such a pathetic performance, I actually used a picture of a burning house as the lead for the game recap. They showed no heart and it was soul killing to watch. I know this loss hurts badly, but I feel for these players. They are working their tails off and fighting to the bitter end. I will take this type of loss any day over what happened last season, multiple times over.
Rutgers impressed Northwestern Chris Collins, who held up the handshake line after the game to give Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson what looked like an emotional pep talk.
Rutgers finished with a +8 rebounding margin, a 34-22 edge with points in the paint and held a 17-11 edge in second chance points on 18 offensive boards. They also only committed 8 turnovers in the game.
Sanders had an up and down game, but finished with a team high 17 points on 8 of 19 shooting from the field. He did only have 1 assist and committed 4 turnovers, including that costly one at the end of the game. He was able to penetrate at times and finished some tough shots in traffic. Sanders just wasn’t able to generate good looks in the final minutes.
Nigel continued to play well after his career high 23 points against Purdue on Tuesday, finishing with 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting, but he did make 3 of 6 from three-point range. He looked under control and played with purpose. He waited for the game to come to him in the first half and made some huge shots tonight.
CJ Gettys played very well tonight, despite having trouble defending Dererk Pardon in the first half. He finished with 10 points and 9 rebounds on a night Deshawn Freeman was very quiet, putting up just 3 points and 5 rebounds in just 18 minutes of action. He was never able to get going after the early foul trouble. However, Gettys has proven to be a real asset to this team and, to be honest, he has played better in conference play than I thought he was capable of. He has his limitations, but you have to love the positives he has delivered this season.
Mike Williams did have a costly foul on McIntosh that contributed to the collapse and he missed a crucial one and one from the line. However, he played hard again and did a lot of the little things to keep his team in the game. He was the only Rutgers player to attack the rim early on and he put up a gutty, 7 point, 8 rebound performance.
Thankfully, Rutgers is done on the road in regular season conference play, finishing with just a 1-8 record. They now return home to play Michigan at the RAC on Wednesday, followed by a six day break before Maryland comes to town. They end the conference slate at home two weeks from tonight versus Illinois. Not an easy stretch, but after playing four of their last five games on the road, it will be welcomed.
This team needs to stick together, as they have a chance to still win a game or two before the season ends. Don’t give up on this team, relish the dramatic improvements and remember these painful losses. It sure as hell beats soulless blowouts that give you little to be proud of. If anything, this team and this season has been about restoring the dignity of this program. Mission accomplished, with a minimum of four more games remaining. Time to go home, where they can still give fans something to cheer about.