All three Big Ten wins for Rutgers this season have come in dramatic fashion. Today’s victory over Illinois was possible due to several key performances, both big and small. I want to detail the backstory on what led to the final sequence and on how the game changed when the team was down 10 points. It took a team effort to battle back to win their program best third Big Ten victory of the season.
As big as Deshawn Freeman and Corey Sanders were in this game, coming through at the end of this game, if it wasn’t for Mike Williams putting the team on his shoulders for a stretch with things slipping away, they never would have had a chance. After leading 30-27 at halftime, Illinois started the second half on a 17-4 run and led Rutgers 44-34 with just over 14 minutes remaining. With the collapse against Maryland still fresh in the mind of fans and players alike, Williams, as he has done many times this season, took matters into his own hands. He made two huge three-pointers, grabbed two big rebounds, all while recovering from getting hit in the head. His toughness and ability to make clutch plays has been a huge difference for this team. I asked coach Pikiell about the play of Williams in this game and this is what he had to say:
“Yeah, that was huge too. And now he gets knocked in the head and I don’t know if he is going to come back or not in the game. For him to come back, and not just come back, but to be ready to go. We ran two plays for him in a row with Jake in the game and he tee’d it up. Mike has been every night, he has been a warrior for us.”
Here is what Illinois head coach John Groce had to say on Williams:
“I just told Mike Williams on my way in that I thought that his two threes were huge. It was 44-34 with about 14 minutes to go and at that point our defense had been impacting the game. We were able to get out in transition. Steve Pikiell calls the timeout and Williams makes two threes right after that took it from 44-34 to 44-40. Give him credit for stepping up and making them. We had similar three-point looks as that and didn’t make them. So give Mike Williams credit. I thought his tenacity as well on some loose balls, you could feel him as I was coaching the game. I really respect how hard he plays, even before the game, but even more so now. I thought he really made a difference.”
It’s great to hear an opposing coach speak so highly of the co-captain, who has worked so hard in his career at Rutgers and has improved quite a bit this season. I spoke with Williams after the game and asked him about what it meant to him:
“That’s how we play, that’s my motto, no matter how many times life knocks you down, you always have to get back up and keep on fighting. After I got hurt, I’m still feeling my head a little bit checking for concussion-like symptoms, but nothing is going to stop me from playing this game and being there for my seniors. They wanted this and I wanted to win this game for them. I did anything possible for that to happen.”
Of course, Williams was set up on both shots by walk-on point guard Jake Dadika, who hadn’t played in the game up until that point. I asked Dadika after the game his thoughts on being in that position and how he approached the situation:
“It was nice that coach trusted to put me in there. I work hard everyday in practice like everyone else does. Coach always tells us to be ready, because you never know what is going to happen. If your number is called, you have to be ready to go out there. I went out there and thought we needed to get some energy back and settle the guys down. I have to give a shout out to Mike, who knocked down two huge threes and got the crowd going, got our defense going. You have to find your shooters and he found a way to get open. I saw him, hit him, and he knocked them down. It brought life and energy back into the place and was a great little run.
Asked if he was shocked Pikiell put him in the game in that situation, Dadika said:
“Kind of a little bit I was shocked, but I always stay ready though. I heard my name and was like is that definitely Jake? I was like yep, sprinted to the table and ready to go in. Pikiell told me you do a great job, have fun out there and just run the team and you will be fine. It’s nice that he had trust in me there. I love getting in there and it was fun.”
Coach Pikiell had this to say about Dadika’s play:
“He was great. Corey looked very tired. I wanted some great energy. I wanted to reverse the ball, I was tired of it not moving from side to side and I trust Jake. He does a great job everyday in practice. He got right in and did exactly what he was supposed to do and he was ready to play. Happy for him and I thought that gave Corey a blow for down the stretch, when he had to do some big things the rest of the game.”
The fact is, this game turned when Rutgers was at their lowest point, down 44-34. Their head coach, who has been great all season in sensing the right moments to put his touch on the game, did just that by calling a timeout. Illinois had hit back to back threes and it felt like Rutgers was about to fall apart. Sensing that Corey Sanders was tired and wanting to mix things up, something he is never afraid to do, he inserted Dadika, who made a point to find Williams. Giving Sanders time to catch his breath and reset himself was a great decision. Sanders was just 1 of 10 from the field at this point in the game, coming off a tough 2 for 10 performance against Maryland.
After the sequence that Williams got Rutgers back into the game, Sanders came back in and got rolling with a tough make on a drive in traffic, getting fouled and completing the three-point play, which made it a 2 point game. He finished 5 of 8 down the stretch and made several very tough shots. His ability to penetrate and finish near the rim enabled Rutgers to be in a position to win the game. I asked Corey after about it:
“I just wanted to stay aggressive. I felt like last game when I was cold against Maryland, I just stopped attacking. I was mad at myself when I got home, so today I wasn’t going to let it affect me. I was cold, but I wanted to keep attacking and hopefully it would start to fall, which is what happened. That was a big boost for us.”
As for the game winning shot from Freeman, Sanders had a great story about how the two players were talking about trust just the day before.
“We were in practice the other day and I don’t know how it came down, but it was something about him trusting me and me trusting him. He was like, I don’t know if I can trust you and I was like D, I trust you. It was something we just talked about yesterday. After he made the shot, he came up to me and was like you can trust me, you can trust me. It was crazy. Yeah, I trust him and everyone of my teammates. That was a big time shot. He showed a lot of strength with that one. I had a shot I could have tied the game against Michigan and it was a bad shot. In those positions, those are hard plays to make. It was a big play he made and I give all my everything to him. He played a great game.”
There you have the backstory on a great win for Rutgers basketball. In a season marked by significant progress, as well as several heartbreaking losses, the final home game of the season ended in glorious victory. Coach Pikiell knows how to push the right buttons and he took control of the game in the second half.
In addition to calling the timeout down 10 and inserting Dadika to change up the offense and give Sanders a break, he also gave Candido Sa, who has seen his time diminish greatly in recent games, meaningful minutes down the stretch. He only played 8 minutes and grabbed 1 rebound, but his defense was very good. Seeing this team get multiple contributions from key players, as well as role players, speaks volumes about how this group continues to play hard and fight. Pikiell really has gotten the most out of this team and they’ve now doubled their win total from last season, sitting at 14-17.
On to DC they will go, with an opponent yet to be determined between Ohio State and Indiana. It doesn’t matter for now, as this team has real confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament and they feel like they can play against anyone. Let’s hope Rutgers can keep things going and pull off another first this season, winning in Big Ten postseason play.
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