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Rutgers Basketball Is On A Mission For Respect

After their win over Ohio State, it’s clear this team is thirsty for more success.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Rutgers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Washington D.C. - If you would have said before the 1st round game between Rutgers and Ohio State that Corey Sanders and Mike Williams would combine to shoot 4 of 19 from the field for just 10 points, as well as Deshawn Freeman fouling out down the stretch, I would have asked how many did they lose by? Instead, this win showed how far this program has come in year one of Steve Pikiell as head coach. This team has come together and the sum is truly greater than the parts. It resulted in a 66-57 victory over the Buckeyes in a game that they earned some much deserved respect within the conference. They are thirsty for more.

Here is what coach Pikiell had to say after the win:

“You know, this team has really competed. We learned how to compete this year. We couldn’t close out some games. But it’s a process when you’re building a program. It takes steps.”

“I’m very proud to be the head coach. It’s a great university with great people. Our team is trying to work hard to make this a real proud program. Just very happy for our guys. It’s about them. They worked. They had a great practice yesterday. They came off that Illinois game, they lost six in a row, but they kept fighting.”

“We’re going to continue to fight. I was proud of every guy that stepped into the game helped us. That’s what we need. We need 12 guys. ‘16 strong’ is one of our sayings. We need everybody from the scout team to do a great job.”

A perfect example of how this team has grown stronger was with the performance of guard Nigel Johnson. After playing one of his worst games of the season in the win over Illinois, he responded with his best game in scarlet and black, scoring a game high 21 points. He kept Rutgers in the game in the first half and iced it down the stretch from the free throw line, going a perfect 8 for 8 on the night. Nigel talked about what motivated this team before the game:

“Since we’ve been in the Big Ten, none of our teams ever won a Big Ten Tournament game. That was one thing we had on our mind before the game started. We wanted to be the first team to win a Big Ten Tournament game.”

Johnson led a Rutgers bench that outscored Ohio State’s by a 32-8 spread, but it was more than just him who stepped up. Jonathan Laurent has seen his role change quite a bit this season, but he came through when his teammates needed him to tonight. He scored 5 big points with Rutgers trailing in the first half and had a key basket as they were taking control of the game in the second frame. He summed up the feeling of the team after the game:

“We got a win last week, we got a win today. We just feel like we have to keep this rolling. It’s going good for us right now, so we just have to keep it on the uprise.”

I asked Freeman, a co-captain along with Mike Williams, how he felt about the win:

“For us to get this win, it’s been awhile, so I’m happy. To get this win, I don’t think I’ve been this happy in awhile.”

When I spoke with Freeman, athletic director Pat Hobbs interrupted to ask Freeman if he was having fun, and Deshawn responded that “he was loving it.”

I asked Freeman about the team’s mindset when they fell behind 15-5 at the start of the game:

“We have to stay together. We’ve been down before at this point. We just have to fight and we have nothing to lose. We went out and laid it all out on the line.”

In regards to coming out after halftime, trailing the Buckeyes 32-29, Freeman smiled when he answered:

“Being down 3 points to us, we’d take that any day. We were happy just being down 3 and came out really strong.”

Graduate transfer CJ Gettys has been a leader for the program since he stepped foot on campus in late August. I asked him about how far they have come:

“We’ve come a long way as a team. We came together tonight and made some winning plays to get the win.”

Rutgers lost at Ohio State 70-64 back in February and had tied the game with just over a minute left that night. In regards to how that game played into this contest, Gettys replied:

“It feels good. We are still playing and they’re not. This is a new season, it doesn’t matter what happened in the first meeting. It didn’t have any effect on this game. We got the win and are playing tomorrow.”

Gettys gave an empassioned response when asked about the mission this team is currently on in the Big Ten Tournament:

“Nobody respects us. We are out here to earn respect. The only people that believe in us are in this room.”

While Williams struggled from the field tonight, his effort and toughness continue to be the backbone for this team’s success. In my opinion, he is the best rebounding guard in the Big Ten and among the best in the nation. He proved it again tonight. He grabbed 9 rebounds tonight, making it his 8th game this season with at least 8 boards. His hard nosed defense, as well as Corey Sanders, were big factors in keeping Ohio State’s backcourt quiet most of the game, with the exception of Jae’Sean Tate.

I asked Williams what the key to victory for Rutgers was in this game and he replied:

“This is most locked in as a team that we have been in my years here besides that upset win of Wisconsin a couple seasons back. Everyone stepped up huge tonight. When Corey and I had off games, Candido stepped up huge, Jon stepped up huge, Issa stepped up huge in the game. Deshawn does what he does. Nigel came up big, he carried the slack for us. Those few guys carried the team today. Even though Corey and I had off nights on offense, we were able to do other things. Get rebounds and defensive stops. All the little things count. I’m just proud of my guys and being able to play another day.”

In response to what this win means for the program:

“I’m glad we got the monkey off our back with our first Big Ten Tournament win. I’m glad we can play another day and hopefully keep winning.”

When asking about how much the search for respect motivates this team, the co-captain said this:

“It’s a big thing and I think we probably gained a little bit tonight. Nobody expected us to win, especially at the Big Ten tournament. It’s a respect thing. We are trying to gain little by little, hopefully tomorrow we can gain even more respect.”

Rutgers is now 15-17 on the season, equaling their best win total since the program last had a winning campaign back in 2006. It’s their first winning streak in Big Ten play in now 57 games they’ve been in. Aside from winning their first Big Ten Tournament game, Rutgers is now also the first 14th seed to ever win in the conference. As they continue to search for respect, they have another opportunity Thursday night against #6 seed Northwestern. They are 7 point underdogs again, just like they were tonight. This team wouldn't want it any other way.