What a game. Yes, Rutgers lost and dropped to 1-4 in Big Ten play, but if their effort tonight didn’t inspire you and give hope for the future of this program, then I don’t know what to tell you. Rutgers had a disasterous start, as they fell into a 9-0 hole and starting center Mamadou Doucoure picked up his second foul in the first two minutes of the game. #4 Michigan State was coming off a loss to Ohio State that snapped its 14 game winning streak and were looking to take their frustration out on Rutgers. Instead, they found themselves in an absolute dogfight, with the Scarlet Knights taking the Spartans into overtime, before succumbing 76-72. It was a heroic effort by this entire Rutgers team in the loss.
After trailing 9-0 early on, Rutgers buckled down on defense and put together three stops in a row, while finally getting some shots to fall. It included this acrobatic finish by Corey Sanders in what was his first basket of the game.
However, after cutting the lead to 14-8, Rutgers fell into a shooting drought over four minutes and were unable to capitalize on Michigan State falling into a 1 of 9 shooting slump. It was 18-9 at the under-8 timeout.
The good new is the offense woke up, as Issa Thiam hit back to back three-pointers to cut the lead to four points. While Jaren Jackson Jr. answered with his own on the next possession, Deshawn Freeman made a jumper at the top of the key to cut the lead to 22-17 with 5:41 remaining in the first half. An athletic up and under layup by Eugene Omoruyi made it a 22-19 ballgame with 4:20 to play. It was a 10-3 scoring run.
After a Mike Williams jumper brought the score to 26-23 Michigan State, Rutgers showed some fatigue at the end of the half. The Spartans ended the opening frame on a 6-2 run and led 32-25 at the break. However, after falling behind 9-0 in the first few minutes of the game, it was impressive to see Rutgers clamp down on the defensive end and make adjustments offensively to battle back into the game. They were +2 on the boards against the Spartans and held Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Miles Bridges scoreless. Shooting remained a struggle, as the Scarlet Knights were just 37% from the field in the first half, while Michigan State shot 40%. The difference was the Spartans making 5 of 11 attempts from behind the arc, while Rutgers was just 2 of 8.
Rutgers came out energized at the start of the second half, as Corey Sanders made a layup with an extra hop in his step and they turned MSU over on the next possession. While the Scarlet Knights missed two three-pointers on the next trip down the court, they grabbed three offensive rebounds to keep the possession alive. Despite drawing two non-shooting fouls, Rutgers failed to score in over a minute on offense and Michigan State took advantage with a 5-0 run and Steve Pikiell called a timeout trailing 37-27 with 16:23 to play in the game.
Freeman, who was playing sick, picked up his fourth foul with 14:52 left, but his teammates picked things up in his absence. Although Rutgers was mired in another 1 of 10 shooting slump, they held Michigan State scoreless for over five minutes and after a pair of Corey Sanders free throws, followed by a Omoruyi layup, the Spartan lead was just 37-33 with 11:49 to play.
After Nick Ward ended the MSU drought with an emphatic slam dunk, he taunted Mamadou Doucoure and was called for a technical foul. Geo Baker made 1 of 2, but after Shaq Doorson grabbed an offensive board and finished the put back on the next possession, Baker then tied the game with a huge three-pointer. The score was 39 apiece with ten minutes left and the Breslin Center was stunned.
Both teams traded baskets over a two minute stretch before Nick Ward scored on a drive to give the Spartans the lead. Bridges then scored his first points of the game on the next possession on a layup to give MSU a 45-41 lead. Pikiell called a timeout with 7:41 to play to settle down Rutgers. After a great hesitation juke and drive by Corey Sanders to make it 47-43, Reggie Langford made a big three for the home team with 6:23 remaining.
Still, this Rutgers team has alligator blood in their veins, as they refused to go away, despite being severely limited offensively. Corey Sanders had this beautiful dish to Deshawn Freeman.
Mike Williams delivered a gutsy drive in the paint and finished a layup while drawing the foul. He completed the three-point play and Michigan State held a 53-48 lead with 4:04 left to play. After Sparty led by 7 at the under-4 timeout, Sanders stole the in-bounds pass and found Freeman for a quick layup and Rutgers again trailed by just 5 points with three minutes remaining. Two Mike Williams free throws made this a three point game with 2:31 left to play. After a Michigan State layup, Freeman drilled a three-pointer and Tom Izzo called a timeout with his team leading 57-55 with 1:39 remaining. Out of the timeout, Freeman stole it and was fouled in transition. He drained both free throws and it was a tie game with 1:27 left.
Jaren Jackson Jr. made 1 of 2 free throws and the Spartans led by 1. On the next possession, Corey Sanders juked his way into a wide open jump shot, which he knocked down and gave Rutgers an improbable 59-58 lead with a minute to play. MSU called a timeout with 49 seconds left and Bridges turned it over by stepping on the baseline driving to the hoop. Sanders missed a jumper after running down the shot clock and Bridges was fouled by Issa Thiam on the other end with 8 seconds to play. The Spartans star missed the first, but made the second to tie it at 59. Sanders missed a contested jumper at the buzzer and the game headed to overtime, something that seemed impossible with Rutgers trailing 9-0 at the start of this game.
On the first possession of the extra session, Mike Bridges drained a three-pointer with Issa Thiam in his face. Sanders answered with a layup on the other end. Soon after, Freeman fouled out with 3:29 left in overtime and Jackson made both free throws, giving Michigan State a 64-61 lead. Sanders made two free throws to follow. After Jackson turned it over, Sanders missed a jumper. However, Mike Williams grabbed a tough rebound in traffic and finished with a putback to give Rutgers a 65-64 lead with 2:23 remaining. Nick Ward tied it after making 1 of 2 free throws, who was fouled by Omoruyi, which was his fifth and he joined Freeman on the bench.
On the next Rutgers possession the ball was knocked out of bounds off of Geo Baker and Michigan State then took the lead on two Nick Ward made free throws. Again, Rutgers would not go away and Sanders made a ridiculous layup over three Spartan defenders to tie the game at 67 with 1:19 to play.
He suffered what appeared to be a leg cramp after the collision and had to exit the game. With Sanders waiting at the scorers table to check back in, Langford delivered the dagger from behind the arc, giving MSU a 70-67 lead. Baker tried to answer on the other end, but missed and Cassius Winston made both free throws to make it a five point game with 28 seconds left. Candido Sa, of all people, made the first three-pointer of the season to make it 72-70 with 16 seconds to play. Shaq Doorson then fouled Winston, making him the third Scarlet Knight to foul out. He made both and then Sanders made another wild layup with contact. Baker then fouled out, the fourth Rutgers player to do so. The Spartans went back to the line up two with 8 seconds remaining. Winston made both again and MSU won the game 76-72, barely surviving.
Moral victories are never the goal. However, to see Rutgers take Michigan State to the brink on the road, after Izzo’s squad saw their 14 game winning streak snapped the game before, was a highly unexpected but it was wildly satisfying to watch this team fight like they did. Their transition defense was excellent and the grittiness of Rutgers truly frustrated the hell out of Michigan State. They were a bunch of warriors out there and while this team is severely deficient on the offensive end, they are as likeable and as hard working of a team that I can remember this program having in many years.
Consider that Michigan State’s average margin of victory entering tonight was 28.8 points and Rutgers lost by a combined 14 points in two defeats to them this season. No other squad that the Spartans have beaten lost by less than 13 points and they beat the following teams by at least 18 points each: North Carolina, Notre Dame, UConn, Nebraska, and Maryland, who just lost at MSU by 30 points last week. Michigan State also averages 87 points a game, but scored 15 points less, despite playing into overtime. They had only 59 points at the end of regulation. They only scored 62 points in the first meeting. Rutgers played tremendous defense in both contests against a much deeper and more talented squad.
Nick Ward led Michigan State with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Bridges finished with 11 points, six below his season average. Five Spartans finished in double digits.
Corey Sanders led the way with a gutty 22 point effort to lead all scorers in the game. He was just 9 of 23 from the field, but made some very difficult shots and willed Rutgers down the stretch to stay in the game. He added 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. Deshawn Freeman played sick but had 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting in 22 minutes. Mike Williams added 9 points, 8 rebounds, which led the team, and 2 assists. Shaq Doorson had 4 points and 7 boards. Issa Thiam had 8 points and was key in Miles Bridges struggling most of the night. Eugene Omoruyi had just 4 points, but grabbed 6 rebounds and drew another 2 charges in the game. Gutsy play was commonplace from the entire roster tonight.
As a team, Rutgers shot 40% compared to Michigan State’s 41%. The Scarlet Knights were huge from the free throw line, making 13 of 15 attempts. They were +4 on the boards against a great rebounding team, were +1 turnover margin and held a 36-24 edge with points in the paint. It really did seem like Rutgers was going to steal this game at the end of regulation, but fate did not see it that way. It was as encouraging a loss as one can be.
Rutgers returns home for a Sunday night matchup with a red hot Ohio State (13-4; 4-0), winners in 8 of their last 9 games, including a 16 point victory over Michigan State last Sunday. After tonight’s performance, who is to say Rutgers can’t knock the Buckeyes off the top of the Big Ten standings? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if this team can put forth the effort on defense and with rebounding they have in certain games this season, as well as tonight, they can play with any team in the Big Ten. The fact is Rutgers has a far less daunting conference schedule the rest of the way and there are many winnable games remaining. For anyone who questioned the contract extension that Pikiell received today, this game served as exhibit A for why the future of this program is as bright as can be. Rutgers will certainly fight to see another day and more wins are coming down the stretch this season.
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