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Rutgers Basketball’s Season Is Over, But The Fight Has Just Begun

A common theme was present in the Scarlet Knight’s locker room after the loss to Northwestern.

Big Ten Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Washington D.C. - It was a tale of two nights in the nation’s capital for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. The first was a statement win to the rest of the conference and the first Big Ten Tournament win for the program in three years of being a member. Then the second round came and Rutgers barely got out of the start gate, surrendering a horrific 31-0 run and falling behind by an insurmountable deficit. It resulted in a disappointing 83-61 loss to Northwestern, ending their season.

Obviously, the players and coach Pikiell were very disappointed after the game. Here is what Pikiell said in the postgame press conference:

“Not the way I wanted it to end. Certainly wasn’t the defensive team that we’ve been most of the year. Got to give Northwestern a ton of credit. They played at an elite level today, I thought. They made our defense look bad, at times even when it was good. Coach Collins has done a great job. They’ve got great players, you can see why they’re an NCAA Tournament team.”

When asked about the past two days and what the future holds, he responded:

“We’ve overcome a lot. 11 months when I took over the job, I watched them workout for the first time, we’ve come a long way. We accomplished a lot of things. We got some respect back to Rutgers basketball. I’m very excited to be the head coach. I love the university, It’s a great place. Building a new practice facility, great athletic director, a lot of real positive things going on. “

“Today we got blitzed by Northwestern. They’re a good team. I thought we played hard. We didn’t make shots. We didn’t make free throws, those kinds of things.”

“We were able to do a lot of firsts. First road win, first tournament win, getting off to the great start in the non-conference. Better days are ahead for Rutgers basketball.”

Asked about this loss marking the end of the season, Pikiell focused on seniors CJ Gettys and Khalil Batie.

“It’s always a sad day. I love basketball. I hate when we hang up the uniforms. But to the seniors, they’ve been great. They’ve brought a lot to the program. Proud of them.”

Corey Sanders struggled to find consistency on offense the past few games of the season, but he continued to battle. After the game, he kept his head high, as he should, and preached progress:

“You know, just how hard we worked, how far we came. I think we did a lot of big things this year for Rutgers basketball. That was the goal. We’re going to keep striving for that goal, move on and just keep progressing like I think we did this year. I know a lot of people have seen that. That’s the goal, just keep progressing.”

Nigel Johnson joined Sanders and Coach Pikiell at the podium and spoke about how much this team has learned and accomplished this season:

“As we just said in the locker room, we did a lot of things this year that nobody expected us to do. We did a lot of first things that happened at Rutgers. It feels good for us to be part of that team. We have most of the people coming back except for the two seniors. We have a lot to build off of. We have a lot of learning experiences we can grow and build from. I feel like we can only get better from it. Keep making our team happy, keep making our fans happy, keep everything behind us.”

In terms of what exactly happened during that fateful 31-0 run, Johnson offered his take:

“I would say at some point during the game, we kind of got flat and wasn’t really stepping on the pedal. They took advantage of it, playing hard, like it was their last game. I think they took advantage of how we were in the middle of the first half. They got hot. When they got hot, it felt like every shot they took was going in. They took advantage of our lack of energy, I guess you could call it.”

Back in the locker room, co-captain Mike Williams was able to put the big picture in focus and was appreciative of the changes that coach Pikiell made with the program this year:

“I’m just proud of this team and how far we have come. I’m just looking forward to how we will look next year.”

“I’m just thankful that he came here. His vision is something we had never seen before. We needed change and he made it “knight and day”, from what we came from. We had a horrible record last year to almost above .500 this year. It’s tremendous. I see the light at the end of the tunnel right now and I feel great about our future.”

“Definitely, it’s my senior campaign. Time flies, but I’m just really looking forward to getting back to work and showing off in my last season on the banks.”

In being able to speak directly with Corey Sanders back in the locker room, he was proud of what this team was able to do in his sophomore season:

“I feel like we had a good season. We doubled our wins. In the Big Ten, we competed every night and played hard. I’m just looking forward to another year to grow and fight with my brothers.”

“We got some confidence and earned some respect. We got our first Big Ten Tournament win, so everything was just the better for us this year.”

Asked what he and the team learned the most from Pikiell and the staff this season, he was clear:

“To fight, have courage and think it’s possible.”

Sanders reasserted the thought that he will be back for his junior year next season:

“I still have to grow a lot. I want to become more of a floor general. I want to get way better on offense and defense. I just want to improve my overall game. That’s going to be my main focus.”

Nigel Johnson spoke about the disappointment of failing to replicate their play from the 1st round against Ohio State:

“Our mindset was to shock the world and try and do something that nobody in the world would expect us to do. Today I put the blame on us. We didn’t come out the way we were supposed to come out. Giving up that 31-0 run, that’s never been us all year. I don’t know what happened, but our mindset was to come out and play we did in the 1st Round. If we could have played like we did v. Ohio State, I feel like if we played like that all weekend, we could have done a lot of things. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, but we are going to use it to come back harder next year. “

When asked about what he thought the team learned the most from Pikiell and the staff, it was similar to what Sanders said:

“As a team, we’ve learned a lot. I think most of all we’ve learned how to fight and never give up. The importance of defense and rebounding. Just being dogs. He instilled the right way to play with all of our hearts and I feel like that’s something we can all take and come back with next year.”

One player that unfortunately will not be on the team next season is graduate transfer CJ Gettys. When asked what his advice to the remaining players in the program, Gettys urged the need to come together and referred to something assistant coach Karl Hobbs stressed before the game:

“Just keep fighting. We have a bunch of different pieces to a puzzle here and you have to find a way to put them together as a unit. Coach Hobbs gave us a great speech before the game that the good thing about a ring is that it’s circular and it comes together all the time and it’s tight. So that’s what this team needs to do moving forward.”

Jonathan Laurent was more of a factor down the stretch the past few weeks and seemed determined to continue forward progress, both for himself and the team, next season:

“I feel like it’s been great experience in getting our first B1G Tournament win ever. I feel like that is a good building block for us heading into next year, next couple of years, that we can play with anybody. Everyone is going to work hard in the offseason so we can come back better next season.”

Asked on the key to this team getting better, Laurent was blunt:

“I’m very excited because I know in the offseason we are going to go at each other. Just coming off this year and seeing what we were able to do, despite all of the faults that we had. We are just going to push each other. That’s the type of team we have. We are going to push each other in the offseason to work on our faults. I know my faults, everybody knows their own. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and reaching new heights to where you want to be as a player.”

When I asked him what he learned the most from Pikiell and the staff, a theme continued:

“It doesn’t matter how bad of a shooting day you are having. It doesn’t matter how good you are. If you play tough, rebound, fight for loose balls, if you do all of those things, you can be in any game and win any game.”

The thoughts of each Rutgers player talking about the need to keep fighting were made even more significant when I heard Northwestern’s head coach Chris Collins at the tail end of his postgame presser. He led the Wildcats to a 14-19 debut season and is now on the cusp to taking them to their first NCAA Tournament in program history in his fourth season. He echoed the sentiment that was repeated often in the Rutgers locker room:

“I just thought back to when we first started, what it looked like, how we had to work, grind, go through tough times, get our brains beat in, learn how to figure it out and just fight, just fight.”

It seems simple, but it’s easier said than done. To keep fighting is much more about a constant mindset and focus that is needed year round for the players to create change within a losing program, in order to make real progress. If one thing is clear about the first season with Steve Pikiell at Rutgers, it’s that the players received that message loud and clear. With the season now over, there is only thing for them to do. Get back to work and keep fighting!