Finally! Nothing comes easy for the Rutgers men’s basketball team and the road in conference play has been a house of horrors for 2+ years. After losing their first 23 road games in B1G play, Rutgers responded after their worst loss of the season Tuesday against Iowa with their first victory ever away from the RAC in conference play.
Head coach Steve Pikiell challenged his team with some strong words about their toughness and maturity ahead of today’s game. After several close losses, Rutgers bottomed out in their last outing and how they would respond was anyone’s guess. Thankfully, they proved again that this year’s team is much improved and far different than last season.
Pikiell inserted co-captain Mike Williams and freshman Issa Thiam in the starting lineup, as Nigel Johnson sat out with a bruise and Eugene Omoruyi began the game on the bench. Rutgers came out ready to play from the start, as they were efficient and smart on offense, while playing suffocating defense on the other end. Corey Sanders did an excellent job running the offense and Rutgers was getting contributions from every starter. The team assisted on 8 of 12 made field goals in the first half, a much higher rate than normal for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers also owned a 14-0 edge with points in the paint at the break.
It resulted in shooting 48% from the floor in the opening frame, but it wasn’t just accuracy from short range, as they made an uncharacteristic 4 of 8 from three-point range. Rutgers also dominated on the boards as usual and held a +11 rebounding margin at the break. However, after going up 29-20 late in the half, Penn State closed with a 9-6 run, cutting the Rutgers lead to 35-29 at intermission. It was fair to worry if they could keep it going after halftime, as they’ve struggled after the break often this season.
Rutgers started the second half by feeding CJ Gettys, who delivered with a nice baby hook that started things the right way. However, Penn State crept within 40-36 at the under-16 timeout. It was getting tense, but Rutgers clamped down on defense and Corey Sanders hit a huge three-pointer from the top of the key that hit nothing but net. Mike Williams continued his tough play by grabbing his own miss and making a wrap around layup to put Rutgers up 10 points. That led to Penn State head coach Pat Chambers calling a timeout with 13:26 remaining in the game. Of course, you just knew this game would be a dogfight down the stretch and it was.
Penn State immediately responded with 4 quick points. Enter Deshawn Freeman, who had been quiet up to that point in the game, hitting a 10 foot fadeaway jumper that kept Penn State from going on a big run. It also triggered a big second half for the co-captain. Corey Sanders made a terrific under control layup through traffic soon after the under-12 timeout, and Freeman made another tough basket to extend the lead to 12 points. Rutgers forced a shot clock violation on the other end and this game was really turning the right way. Penn State was fouling and Rutgers found themselves in the bonus with a little more than 10 minutes to play. Due to continued struggles at the free throw line, Rutgers could never truly put this game out of reach.
After the lead was cut to 7 points, Corey Sanders answered yet again, making back to back three’s, giving Rutgers a 60-47 lead with a little more than 7 minutes to play. Lamar Stevens fouled out in between those baskets and Penn State was reeling.
Tony Carr got Penn State within 9 points with less than 5 minutes to play. Pikiell used a timeout and called a set play for Freeman after the break, who made a clutch high bank off the glass. They led 64-53 with 3:42 to play in the game, an eerily similar position as they were in one week ago at the Garden against Wisconsin. This time it looked like Rutgers would fail the same exact way, as their lead dwindled down to 64-62 on a Carr layup with with 2:06 to play. It was a 9-0 Penn State run that left every Rutgers fan sick to their stomach.
This time, Corey Sanders continued to put this team on his back, as he hit a clutch jumper to extend the lead to 4 points. Then CJ Gettys hit two huge free throws. Mike Watkins made a three-point play on the other end, after a bad foul from Freeman. Mike Williams followed with hitting 1 of 2 from the charity stripe and a Josh Reaves three-pointer left Rutgers with just a 69-68 lead with 11 seconds remaining. After Corey Sanders made 1 of 2 from the line, he did a good job of keeping Tony Carr in front of him as he drove the lane as the clock winded down. Deshawn Freeman came swooping in, forcing Carr to change his shot in mid-air and it missed on the left side of the basket, missing the rim completely. Victory was finally achieved for the Scarlet Knights!
Corey Sanders played one of his best and most complete games of his fine career, delivering 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 39 minutes of action. His 4 of 5 performance from three-point range was a difference maker in this game. However, he also played under control, leading the offense with purpose. Still, Rutgers wouldn’t have won without offensive balance, as Freeman, Gettys and Williams all played well and scored in double figures too. Freeman had 15 points and 8 rebounds, Williams had 12 points and 5 boards, all on the offensive glass, and Gettys put up 10 points and 4 rebounds.
As a team, Rutgers dominated the boards, holding a +12 rebounding margin overall and +7 on the offensive glass. They held Penn State to 40% from the field and forced 14 turnovers. The defensive effort was a huge step up from their lackluster performance earlier in the week and much like we’ve been accustomed to witnessing this season.
While Rutgers almost failed due to continued struggles from the free throw line, making just 13 of 23 attempts for 57%, they did just enough to pull out this monumental win. The 70 points scored was the highest total for Rutgers in a Big Ten game this season. Fittingly, Rutgers has now earned both their first conference win ever and first road win in B1G play ever against Penn State!
Rutgers heads home for a short break, before heading back out onto the road against Ohio State Wednesday night. It will be their tenth game away from the RAC in their last fourteen games, which is certainly a tough stretch. However, after finally breaking through on the road today, this team should have a lot of confidence against the Buckeyes. A win in Columbus would mark the first win streak in Big Ten play in program history. However, Ohio State just won on the road at Michigan, so they’ll have confidence in returning home. Minnesota and Illinois have just one more conference win and still have to play Rutgers at the RAC, starting with the Golden Gophers next Saturday 2/11.
As Batman and others have said before with one of my favorite proverbs, “it’s always darkest before the dawn”. Perhaps, the Iowa game was the rock bottom result that this team needed to snap themselves out of a long funk, one that saw them lose 10 of their last 11 games and included their torturous winless streak on the road. Opportunity to really make progress down the stretch has reappeared now. The road demons have finally been exorcised! For that, we can all exhale and enjoy this victory!