The RAC was buzzing a good twenty minutes before tip-off and the men’s basketball team came out ready to play, starting up 7-0 in the first two minutes of action. After senior CJ Gettys layed in a miss from Mike Williams, Illinois called a timeout and he showed the home crowd how fired up he was in his last game at the RAC. After falling behind early in the beginning of most conference games this season, this was the start they desperately needed. Of course, nothing is easy in the Big Ten. However, Rutgers pulled out a thrilling 62-59 win that ended the regular season on a very high note!
Illinois got back into the game with a couple of three-pointers and the score stood at 13-10 Rutgers for several minutes, before Illinois took control. Rutgers fell into a shooting slump and found themselves trailing 25-21 with 4:07 to play. After starting a hot 6 of 10 shooting from the field, Rutgers made only 3 of their next 15 shots.
Pikiell called a timeout to settle down the team and like it has many times this season, it worked. When Illinois came out of the timeout in a 2-3 zone, Pikiell shouted to Nigel Johnson, who was out of position, to move to the wing. On that possession, the ball was reversed to Nigel, who drained an open three-pointer for his first points of the game. That sparked a 9-2 run by Rutgers to end the half and head into the locker room with a 30-27 lead. They held advantages on the boards (+6), second chance points (8-0), and points in the paint (16-10). Both teams were shooting 38% at the break.
Unfortunately, cold starts to the second half continued for Rutgers, as Illinois took advantage of sloppy play and built a 10 point lead after back to back three-pointers. They led 44-34 with just over 14 minutes to play in the game, starting the half on a 17-4 run. It felt like the Maryland game all over again.
Thankfully, co-captain Mike Williams, who has been the heart and soul of this team all year, stood up after a quiet first half spent in foul trouble. He single handily got Rutgers back into the game with consecutive three-pointers of his own, which included two rebounds in between. It awoke the RAC faithful, who were bracing for another collapse. Illinois clung to a 45-42 lead at the under-12 timeout.
After Corey Sanders started the game just 1 of 10 from the field, and only 3 for his last 20 dating back to the Maryland game, he finally got going. He drove from the perimeter around two Illini defenders for a lay-up and foul. Sanders completed the three-point play from the line.
Finke probably hurt more than helped on the attempted hedge. Sanders converts the and-1. pic.twitter.com/uWKA86pgG1— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 4, 2017
It cut the lead to two points and after Candido Sa, just into the game for the first time, grabbed an offensive rebound and made a great pass to Deshawn Freeman for a huge bucket. It was tied at 47 just past the midway point of the second half.
Illinois has done a relatively decent job keeping RU off the offensive glass, but Knights will get theirs. pic.twitter.com/joaKIc8we8— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 4, 2017
Sanders came alive after Rutgers slipped behind 54-49, making three consecutive baskets by attacking the rim and finishing in traffic in the paint.
The one guy quick enough to at least sometimes stay in front of Sanders is on the bench with 4 fouls. pic.twitter.com/jOBEpPQ2dl— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 4, 2017
Down the stretch, the two lowest scoring teams in the Big Ten struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket and it was a real battle.
After a skirmish for a loose ball and the game tied with just over a minute to play, following a timeout, Sa was called for a foul on Maverick Morgan with just 3 seconds left on the shot clock. He made both and Illinois led 59-57 with 1:05 left in the game. After Pikiell called a timeout, Sanders continued to dominate by driving to the rim and finished another high arcing shot to tie the game.
On the next possession, the refs called the ball that went out of bounds was on Rutgers, which sent the RAC crowd into chorus of boos. Thankfully, they checked the replay and the call was corrected, setting up Rutgers for the final possession.
With the score tied and Rutgers having the ball with 35 seconds remaining, you knew Corey Sanders would look to drive to win the game. Instead, Iliinois didn’t allow him any room and he found Freeman on the wing, who made a HUGE three-pointer for the win!
Rutgers WINS ON A Deshawn Freeman 3! The RAC is wild what a way to end the regular season!!! pic.twitter.com/pKH0VkDGXA— On the Banks (@OTB_SBNation) March 4, 2017
Freeman had the best offensive game of his Rutgers career, shooting 7 of 8 from the field for 21 points. He played with poise and confidence. In a game Sanders struggled most of the way, he finished with 5 clutch baskets and 17 points. They combined to shoot 11 of 11 from the free throw line in this game. As a team, Rutgers also shot 43% from the field, while holding Illinois to just 36%.
CJ Gettys played well in his last game at home, finishing with 8 points and 9 rebounds. Williams had 9 points, including three massive shots behind the arc, as well as 7 rebounds.
The regular season is now complete, with Rutgers finishing with the most wins in Big Ten play they have had in three campaigns, registering a 3-15 record in conference play. They will head to Washington D.C. for an opening round game in the Big Ten Tournament with mutliple teams remaining as a possible opponent. What a wild game and great win for this team! To read about the backstory to this victory, including quotes and reaction from Corey Sanders, Mike Williams, and coach Pikiell, click here.