Another Rutgers basketball game and another gut wrenching loss is the result. With a four point lead and just over 6 minutes to play in the game, another Big Ten opponent, this time in maize and blue, took control to pull out a tight win. Michigan prevailed by the final score of 68-64, as the home faithful watched another painful loss. The margin between the thrill of victory and agony of defeat for Rutgers has been razor thin during their current five game losing streak. Four of them have been by single digits, three by 6 points or less, and now consecutive games with late leads, only to lose by 4 points in each.
It was a tremendous opportunity for Rutgers to pick up that elusive signature win of the season, but is also almost turned into a nightmare. In the first half, Michigan was hot early from behind the arc and built a quick 18-9 lead, as they made 4 of 6 in the first 7 plus minutes of the game. It had a similar feeling to the start of the Iowa game, where next thing you knew, Rutgers was down 20 midway through the half and never recovered. This time, Rutgers never stopped battling and after a timeout with the deficit at 9 midway through the opening frame, they started attacking the rim more and tightened up on defense.
Michigan also set the tone on the glass, which led to a dominant first half performance, finishing with a +7 rebounding margin at the break. The Wolverines came into the game with the second worst average margin on the board and yet, Rutgers, the top rebounding team in the B1G, looked helpless. It was bizarre. Although the teams were even in the second half, Michigan grabbed a total of 40 boards after averaging 29 per game coming in. They even held a +3 margin on the offensive glass, which I never saw coming, with Rutgers leading the Big Ten & 7th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
Equally strange, Michigan is the top shooting team in the conference and Rutgers, the worst shooting team, matched them at 41% from the field for the game. While Michigan made 10 from three-point range, they only made 32% of their attempts, well below their B1G average of 39%. What was weirder was that they actually made 4 of their first 6 attempts, only to shoot 6 of 25 the rest of the way. Rutgers, on the other hand, made 6 of 16 for 38%, besting the Wolverines. It truly was a bizarre game, as Rutgers even shot better from the free throw line, making 10 of 13 for 77%, while Michigan was just 14 of 23 for 61%. In summation, Rutgers out-shot the best shooting team in the Big Ten and still lost.
While Rutgers did win the battle in the paint, outscoring Michigan 32-22, they saw the Wolverines hold an 8-6 edge in second chance points. As well as Rutgers shot in this game, they got beat on the glass, which has been their saving grace most of the season.
Tied at 52, Corey Sanders stepped up and took control in a crucial sequence. After driving for a tough basket in traffic, he stole it on the other end, passed it to Nigel Johnson, who dribbled down the court and found Mike Williams for a layup, which led to a Michigan timeout with them down 4 and 6:32 to play.
Top 10 play for Rutgers on the season. Great awareness by Sanders. pic.twitter.com/zYJE2Iw9aW— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) February 23, 2017
The RAC was rocking, but a familiar ending was yet to be played out. It was like watching a movie when you know the hero is about to die, but you still scream when he or she does, hoping there is a chance the conclusion will be a happy one for once. Sadly, this night was no different.
Unfortunately, Michigan went on a 10-0 run, capped by a three-point play by leading scorer Derrick Walton Jr., who finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. The play began after a timeout by Pikiell, who never saw his team get a chance to execute the play he called, as they turned it over. Down 62-56 with hope fading, Williams grabbed a huge offensive rebound and layed it in, while drawing the foul. It got his team and the crowd at the RAC back into the game.
Again trailing 63-59, Mike Williams grabbed another huge offensive rebound and made a tough basket, this time a 7 foot baseline jumper.
Wilson with a couple of blocks here late, but Williams hustles to clean up the mess. pic.twitter.com/V4YgPPfXLn— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) February 23, 2017
On the next possession, Rutgers played stout defense, but Sanders was called for a foul on Abdur-Rahkman of Michigan, who made both free throws. It was a questionable call at best, as Sanders grazed by him as he leaned forward on his jumper. Abdur-Rahkman sold it well though, by twisting his body on his shot, he made it look like Sanders forced him to do so because of contact. That wasn't the case.
It’s simply a reality that Rutgers isn’t going to get calls down the stretch of games until they can start winning on their own. Head coach Steve Pikiell knew this was the case before the season. He was preaching to his players about the need for toughness at the end of games and not to expect to get the calls in the preseason. It continues to plague this team, as it has in all their recent losses.
Regardless, the story was much the same in the final outcome. Rutgers played with tremendous heart and effort, fighting back after falling behind by 9 points early in the game. They were down 10 points in the second half, but never went away. Unfortunately, winning and losing comes down to execution down the stretch and Rutgers failed to close again. It’s certainly disappointing and frustrating for sure, but I still toe the line of preferring these type of almost there losses, versus the many sad performances we witnessed in recent years. Remember, Michigan is firmly on the bubble for the NCAA’s and needed this win.
One encouraging sign was seeing the backcourt trio of Sanders, Williams, and Johnson all playing well for the second consecutive game. Sanders led the team with 15 points, including 2 of 4 from deep, as well as 5 rebounds and 2 assists. He missed a contested three on the last possession with the clock running out and you could see the disappointment in his face. It was once again difficult for him to get good looks in the closing minutes.
Williams was great defensively and his usual scrappy self, scoring 14 points on 5 of 10 from the field and grabbing 8 rebounds. On a night that Rutgers only had 9 offensive rebounds as a team, Mike had 6 by himself. They never would have been in the game down the stretch without several clutch plays from the junior tonight.
Johnson finished with 12 points on 5 of 10 shooting and dished out 4 assists, while only committing 1 turnover. This group is the base for this team to continue to grow and improve into next season and it’s no coincidence Rutgers is losing by closer margins when they play well together.
Deshawn Freeman was playing well early and had 9 points at the half. Rutgers fed him right away after the break, but after he missed two shots near the rim, he never got back into the offensive flow of the game. He didn’t score at all in the second half, although he did finish with 9 rebounds.
In terms of bench play, it was good to see sophomore forward Jonathan Laurent play his best minutes in weeks. He scored 6 points, had 2 steals and a blocked shot, playing with energy and purpose. Unfortunately, no other role players on the team were able to contribute much in this game.
Now Rutgers can get some much needed rest and prepare for a top 4 Big Ten team in Maryland, who visit the RAC next Tuesday. After that, Illinois comes to town for senior night on Saturday, March 4th. It’s been a painful stretch, but if you take the long view, it’s still a period to be happy about. Think about where this program exactly a year ago. This team was truly pathetic last season. We should all be ecstatic that this team under Pikiell has performed as well as it has. They easily could have lost by 20+ points tonight, but they showed the discipline and fight to give Michigan everything they had. Sadly, once again, they were just short of thrilling, but I’ll still settle for agony in year one of the rebuild.