This loss was tough to swallow, but was also a super encouraging effort at the same time. Rutgers fell short in the end, but tonight we saw some real development from role players that bodes well for the future. It is very disappointing that they couldn’t pull this game out, but a familar nemesis was their ultimate undoing: the free throw line. Rutgers made just 10 of 18 attempts from the charity stripe in what was a tie game with just a little more than 1 minute left in the contest. Ultimately, with Corey Sanders forced to watch from the sidelines down the stretch after fouling out, Rutgers fell to Ohio State 70-64.
Early on it felt like the Buckeyes might run away with it. With the game tied at 10 after a Eugene Omoruyi steal and layup assisted by Nigel Johnson, who returned after missing the last game, Ohio State ripped off a 17-6 run. The Buckeyes were penetrating the Rutgers defense with ease and turnovers on offense by the Scarlet Knights did them no favors. They trailed 27-16 with 6:16 left in the half and Rutgers seemed to have very little life in them at this point.
Fortunately, this team showed some real fight and battled back, finishing the opening frame on a 11-6 run. This stretch included Corey Sanders on the bench with 2 fouls, which turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the end of the game. Rutgers trailed 33-27 at the half, but considering that Ohio State held a +8 rebounding margin and Rutgers committed 7 turnovers, while making just 1 of 5 free throw attempts, it was encouraging they were still within striking distance.
Still, after Ohio State came out strong after the break and doubled the lead at 41-29 less than 4 minutes into the second half, it was another point that felt like the wheels were about to fall off. However, Rutgers continued to battle and refused to go away in this game, which is marked progress from even a month ago. Sanders took control on offense, attacking the rim and forcing Ohio State into foul trouble. With an impressive 19-9 run that included some spirited play from backup center Shaq Doorson, Rutgers trailed just 49-48 at the 10 minute mark left in the game. It was a back and forth contest from that point on, something that seemed unlikely at two different junctures in this game.
After Ohio State led 59-57 with a little more than 5 minutes to play, a key moment in the game took place. Corey Sanders fouled Kam Williams from behind the arc, his fourth in the game. Williams is a 93% free throw shooter and made all three attempts. On the next possession, Corey attacked the rim yet again, but this time was called for the charge, despite the Buckeye defender appearing to set his feet late, making it a bad call by the officials. Down 5 points and their best player out of the game, it was a disastrous turn of events for Rutgers. Even though they weren’t able to overcome that adversity, they fought the entire time down the stretch and tied the game with just a little more than 1 minute remaining. After a shot clock violation on offense, Mike Williams stole the ball and after missing near the rim, Issa Thiam grabbed a huge offensive rebound and made the lay-in, evening the score at 62.
Kam Williams stepped up once again for Ohio State and delivered the death blow, hitting a three-pointer and getting fouled. He made the free throw and gave Ohio State a 4 point lead, finishing with 23 points to lead all scorers in the game. Nigel Johnson drove to the other end of the court and drew in the Buckeye defense, leaving Deshawn Freeman free to tip in his miss, cutting the deficit to 2 points with 30 seconds left in the game. However, Rutgers forced a Freeman three-point attempt down 4 after two made free throws from Marc Loving and the game was all but over.
Corey Sanders is developing into a complete player under this coaching staff and really had it cooking in the second half. He led Rutgers with 17 points and 4 assists, but he needs to learn from fouling out with 5 minutes to play. While the charge was arguably a bad call, his foul of Kam Williams from behind the arc was a terrible decision, as it was a tap on his backside that had no impact on his shot. He needs to understand his own value and stay away from silly fouls. There has been a lot of progress from Sanders in the past month and there is no reason to believe he won’t learn from this.
I loved the way that Mike Williams, Shaq Doorson, and Issa Thiam played tonight. Williams is tough as nails and plays with his heart on his sleeve. He scored 11 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and dished out 3 assists, while committing zero turnovers.
Shaq was active near the rim and gave Rutgers a real lift with CJ Gettys struggling tonight. Ohio State’s Trevor Thompson played big and finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, but Shaq gave him some trouble in 16 minutes of action. He finished with 6 points and 6 rebounds, as well as 1 blocked shot. If he can continue to get in better shape and improve his explosiveness near the rim, he could be a consistent contributor next season.
The most encouraging development from a player tonight was the performance of freshman Issa Thiam. After being a non-factor in Big Ten play all season, he finally stepped forward in a big way in this game. He was aggressive and played with more confidence, giving Rutgers hope he can be counted on as the season finishes out. Issa put together a 10 point, 4 rebound, 3 steal, 1 block effort and it was his second straight game with two three-pointers. His ceiling is sky high, with his play tonight signaling better things are yet to come once he gets stronger and continues to develop his game.
As a team, they ended up grabbing 9 more rebounds than the Buckeyes in the second half, finishing with a +1 rebounding edge for the game. They also only turned the ball over 4 times in the second half and forced 15 Ohio State turnovers in the game, 4 more than they gave away. However, it’s important to realize their shooting struggles are a problem overall, not just from the free throw line.
They shot just 40% from the field and a putrid 4 of 17 from three-point range. As many free throws as Rutgers missed, they also missed a lot of close shots near the rim. They consistently struggle to finish high percentage shots and it’s been incredibly frustrating all season. It also signals the need for an upgrade in talent on the offensive end. The positive thing is this team does so much well otherwise, with the exception of turnovers. The future is bright under head coach Steve Pikiell. Rutgers is officially a tough out on most nights for Big Ten opponents and that is major progress from last season.
For now, Rutgers heads home after a brutal stretch, in which they just played their 10th game away from the RAC in their last 14, dating back to mid-December. They get a much needed home game with a Saturday matinee against Minnesota at the RAC. It’s a winnable game and an opportunity to salvage the week after a spirited effort tonight, but a disappointing result just the same.