Washington D.C. - After last night’s upset win over Ohio State, this team entered unfamiliar territory in advancing to the 2nd Round of the Big Ten Tournament against Northwestern. In easily the biggest game for the program in several years, how they would perform was a major question coming into this game. The last time Rutgers won two conference tournament games was 19 years ago. Sadly, after an emotional high from winning in the first round, Rutgers played like they were running on empty and got blown out of the Verizon Center, resulting in a 83-61 loss.
In the opening four minutes, Issa Thiam hit two early three-pointers to give Rutgers an 9-6 lead right out of the gate. However, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare, as the Scarlet Knights went ice cold and were a step slow, which resulted in Northwestern rattling off a cringeworthy 31-0 run. Pikiell called two separate timeouts during this stretch, but it didn’t do much to change the action on the court. The Scarlet Knights were bleeding and it was much more than a flesh wound. It cut much deeper and cost them their season.
Northwestern was getting open looks every trip down the floor and Rutgers was making costly mistakes, turning it over 10 times in the half, after averaging that amount for an entire game in their last 8 contests. Another maddening stat was that they were actually 5 of 8 from three-point range, as Issa made 3 of 4 and Nigel Johnson made 2 of 3. The truly frustrating part was Rutgers was just 4 of 20 from two-point range, resulting in 32% from the floor in the opening frame. The Wildcats bested them on the boards as well, holding a +5 rebounding margin. Rutgers did rise up and finish the half on a 15-5 run, cutting the deficit to 18 points at the break.
To their credit, Rutgers kept fighting in the second half and cut the Northwestern lead to 53-37 at the under-12 timeout. However, the Wildcats went on a 7-0 run, capped by a Bryant McIntosh three-pointer, forcing another Pikiell timeout with his team trailing by 23 points and just over 10 minutes remaining. A true comeback was not in the cards.
Nigel Johnson followed up his game high 21 points last night with another strong offensive performance, scoring another 21 points on 6 of 13 from the field and 5 of 7 from three-point range. After a poor game against Illinois, he finished his debut season with Rutgers strong. Corey Sanders battled and finished with 14 points and 3 assists. Issa finished 3 of 6 from three-point range for 9 points.
In the last game of his career, CJ Gettys had 4 points and 5 rebounds, while senior walk-on Khalil Batie had a nice moment with a three-pointer to end his service with the program.
On the night, Northwestern held a +14 rebounding margin, +14 with points in the paint, and shot 60% in the game, including 9 of 20 for 45% from three-point range.
Tonight was a bitter pill to swallow, but perspective is needed. It’s not easy being a Rutgers basketball fan and this game served as an unfriendly reminder. However, while this team faltered on a big stage, it was the biggest stage they’ve gotten to since a second round matchup at the Garden against Notre Dame in the 2013 Big East Tournament. This program is very much a work in progress, but several necessary rungs were climbed on the ladder in the first campaign under Pikiell.
Rutgers finished the season with a 15-18 record, which ties the most wins for the program since the last winning campaign in 2006, when Gary Waters led the Scarlet Knights to 19 wins. They also more than doubled the 7 wins of last year’s team.
The program entered its third season in the Big Ten with just a 3-33 record in regular season games and finished 3-15 this year, equaling their win total from the previous two campaigns. Their 11-1 record to start the season was the best start since the legendary 1975-1976 teams ran the table all the way until the Final Four.
The Big Ten Tournament run is over. While tonight’s result was very disappointing, to say the least, playing in the most important game Rutgers has had in several years was still a mark of progress. This team will be remembered for making fans care about Rutgers basketball again. Being upset right now proves that fact.
They gave us hope and though they had several close, frustrating losses this season, that was another step forward for this program too. This team made us believe again. Hope is a beautiful thing in life and for the first time in a few seasons, the fighting Pikiell’s gave us that. They weren’t a very talented team compared to the rest of the Big Ten. They were a bad offensive team. However, for the most part this season, they played with heart, guts, and guile. Defense and rebounding were the staples for this team and it made them fun to watch. None of us want the season to end, which is the first time we can say that in a long time.
I’ll leave you with this point. Northwestern is now a safe bet to earn their first NCAA Tournament in program history under fourth year head coach Chris Collins. In his first season with the school, the Wildcats finished 14-19 and lost on Day 2 of the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan State. They trailed at the half by 18 points and trailed by as many as 24 points in the second half. Collins led that program out of the abyss by teaching them how to fight and win. Pikiell is trying to do the same at Rutgers.
This rebuild is going to take time. Patience is needed. However, if it was offered before the season that Rutgers would accomplish all they have in finishing with an 15-18 record, we would have all taken it in a heartbeat. It’s not easy being a Rutgers basketball fan, but to not see better days are ahead under Steve Pikiell is to not see reality.
To read reactions from the players and coach Pikiell, click here.