This game was exactly what we thought it would be, a low scoring, back and forth, defensive battle. Unfortunately, Rutgers was crippled by sloppy play in this game and couldn’t execute on the offensive end in a 60-54 loss to Nebraska. It was a disappointing outcome in a game that was for the taking and on a night that they played strong defensively.
It was a unique opening stretch to begin the game, as an almost seven minute stretch of play transpired before the first TV timeout. Rutgers led 9-8 on 4 of 6 shooting from the field, while Nebraska started just 4 of 11. Corey Sanders made two contested jumpers early on.
Several minutes later, Rutgers was trailing 14-11, Sanders made a great drive and acrobatic finish, splitting two defenders in the process.
Soon after, Steve Pikiell subbed in his bench and with a rarely used backcourt of Matt Bullock, Souf Mensah and Jake Dadika on the floor with Candido Sa and Deshawn Freeman, Rutgers took the lead back. Souf drove and missed a layup, Sa missed a dunk follow up, but thankfully, Freeman rebounded the miss and finished the three-point play for 16-14 lead. Soon after, James Palmer Jr tied it for Nebraska.
Both teams struggled in 1 of 8 stretch from the field, as the score was stuck at 16 apiece for two minutes before Mamadou Doucoure made an elbow jumper. Isaac Copeland answered with a three from the corner. It was back and forth from there the rest of the half. Shaq Doorson, who has quietly been a solid defender off the bench during Big Ten play, slammed it home with authority.
Freeman later tied it in the final minute of the half with another difficult finish in traffic and drew the foul, completing his second three-point play of the opening frame.
Nebraska led 27-25 at the half behind strong play from James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland, who each scored 11 points on a combined 9 of 17 shooting from the floor. The rest of the Huskers scored just 5 points on 2 of 11 shooting. Rutgers struggled offensively, shooting just 38%, as Geo Baker and Issa Thiam combined for a tough 1 of 8 shooting from the field. The Scarlet Knights only held a +1 edge on the boards and they committed 8 first half turnovers.
In the first possession at the start of the second half, Issa grabbed an offensive rebound and found Geo Baker wide open on the perimeter and he promptly knocked down a three. However, Nebraska went on a quick 4-0 run and led 31-28. Rutgers continued to get a boost from the freshmen, as Geo Baker made a ridiculous contested jumper just inside the arc, followed by a Mamadou Doucoure tip-in on a offensive rebound to take a 1 point lead early on in the second frame.
Just when it looked like Rutgers was taking control, Nebraska responded with a fierce 10-0 run, spurred by three-pointers by Palmer Jr. and Copeland on back to back possessions. Trailing by 9 point with 14-plus minutes remaining, Issa Thiam, who was 0-6 from three at this point, shot faked from behind the arc and drove for a badly needed layup to cut the Huskers lead to 41-34. With under 12 minutes remaining, Candido Sa had a nice jump hook to make it 43-38 Nebraska, as the visitors fell into a three-plus minute scoreless stretch.
The Cornhuskers got back on the board after Taylor made 1 of 2 free throws and Shaq Doorson continued his offensive outburst (6 points) with a great move and jump hook to cut the lead to 44-40 midway through the second half. After Nebraska committed their fourth turnover in a two minute stretch, Corey Sanders went the length of the court and knifed his way to the basket, finishing the layup on a finger roll in traffic, cutting the lead to two. On the next possession for the Huskers, Palmer Jr. was called for an offensive foul, as Eugene Omoruyi drew a charge yet again, his tenth in the past six conference games.
Unfortunately, after two Isaiah Roby free throws, Isaac Copeland continued to be a problem for Rutgers, as he hit a dagger three-pointer to give Nebraska a 49-42 lead with 7:25 remaining in the game, breaking a six minute drought without a field goal for the Huskers. The Scarlet Knights got off the mat though, as Sanders had another tough bucket in traffic and Omoruyi finished of an offensive rebound after missing one on the previous possession.
Nebraska continued to struggle offensively and fell into another 3-plus minute drought from the field, but Rutgers couldn’t capitalize. They were stuck in a 1 of 9 stretch from the floor, as the Huskers had made just 1 of 8. At the final TV timeout with 3:43 remaining, Nebraska led 50-46. The Huskers had the inbounds pass stolen by Omoruyi, who went the length of the floor for a layup in traffic, cutting the lead to two points.
Corey Sanders had the ball in his hands on the next possession and a chance to tie or take the lead, but he had it stolen. Glynn Watson Jr. then scored on his own gravity defying basket over Sanders to give Nebraska a 52-48 lead with 2:13 to play. AFter a Rutgers timeout, Deshawn Freeman rebounded his own missed and tipped it in, as the lead was just two once again.
Isaiah Roby for Nebraska went to the line on a one and one, making both to push the lead back to four points with just over a minute to play. Omoruyi and Sa played a high/low game for a huge lay-in by Candido. Nebraska’s Palmer Jr. missed a three on the next trip down the floor, but Rutgers failed to grab the rebound, as Copeland pulled it down. Watson Jr. then blew by Sanders for a huge layup to put Nebraska back up four with 29 seconds remaining. On the opposite end, Sa was fouled and missed the front end of the one and one. Rutgers lost 60-54, falling short, as they failed to execute down the stretch.
The inability of Rutgers to dominate the boards against a poor rebounding team was a major reason for the loss tonight. They only held a +3 edge on the boards and while they did have a +6 edge on the offensive glass, they failed to capitalize. Rutgers missed many close shots near the rim and only held a 14-11 edge on second chance points. It wasn’t enough.
A big difference in the outcome was the play of Isaac Copeland, who led Nebraska with 23 points on 9 of 15 shooting from the floor. He added 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and made several big shots in the second half. Leading scorer James Palmer Jr. struggled in the second frame, as Rutgers defended him well, and he shot just 6 of 17 from the field on the night. He did finish with 16 points, icing the game with two free throws in the final seconds. Glynn Watson Jr. added 10 points on 5 of 12 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds and 3 assists. As a team, Nebraska shot just 40% and were only 5 of 18 from three-point range. They also committed 16 turnovers, including 11 in the second half.
Unfortunately, Rutgers couldn’t take advantage of Nebraska’s poor shooting and sloppy play, as they had the same issues. They struggled to take care of the basketball for the second straight game, turning it over 14 times. They shot a putrid 34% from the floor and were just 2 of 12 from three-point range. Rutgers did hold a 30-24 edge with points in the paint, but left plenty of points off the scoreboard.
Corey Sanders led the Scarlet Knights with 14 points, but after starting the game 2 for 2 from the floor, he was just 6 of 17 overall. He added 3 rebounds and 2 assists, but also had 3 turnovers and played poor defense down the stretch. Freeman had his second straight double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He also had 3 turnovers and was 4 of 10 from the floor. Baker also had 10 points, but was only 3 of 11 shooting and aside from two second half three-pointers, failed to do much offensively. No other players scored in double figures and Rutgers only had 5 assists, one game after producing just one. Issa Thiam was more aggressive but struggled mightily, shooting just 1 of 10 from the field and 0-7 from behind the arc. He came in to the game on a hot stretch of making 15 of his last 30 three-pointers.
It was a frustrating loss for Rutgers, as they played hard and strong on the defensive end. However, their inability to finish on the offensive end and too many crucial mistakes throughout the game cost them the victory. They also could not execute down the stretch and couldn’t counter Nebraska’s playmaking in the final minutes. It was a night that the game was for the taking and if this team wants to truly make a climb up the Big Ten standings, they need to close out games at home and protect the RAC floor. Nebraska is a strong defensive team, but if Rutgers was merely competent on the offensive end, they would have won the game.
Rutgers now heads on the road for a crucial two game trip in which both contests are an opportunity to pick up just the second road win ever in Big Ten play for the program. On Saturday, the Scarlet Knights travel to Happy Valley to take on Penn State (13-8; 3-5), the site of where they finally broke through last season with a road victory. That game is followed by a matchup against last place Illinois (10-11; 0-8) in Champaign-Urbana. Perhaps going on the road will be a good thing for Rutgers (12-10 2-7, who let one slip away tonight at the RAC. There is no time to wallow in defeat, as there are still plenty of opportunities to win games the second half of league play.