PISCATAWAY — A matchup between Rutgers and Nebraska was always going to be ugly. Given the fact both teams thrive on defense and lack on offense, Wednesday night’s game was destined to become a rock fight, both sides clawing to score with the other right on their heels.
The winner would be the team who could out-tough the other, who could take the late punches and swing back with a final blow.
The game was as ugly as advertised. Between the teams there were 30 turnovers, 35 fouls and 75 missed shots — many of which were bunnies around the rim. When the dust settled on the night, it was the visiting Huskers who were left on top, but not without the bruises from the rock fight.
“I know that neither of us two teams are juggernauts offensively,” said Nebraska head coach Tim Miles. “I’m not going to pretend we’re the Warriors. We’re like the Doland Wheelers, which is my high school team. God bless.”
Nebraska led for the entire second half, but never by double-digits. The Scarlet Knights responded to every run with one of their own, maintaining their guest within an arms reach for the entirety of the second frame, but without ever completely turning it around.
The best chance came when Rutgers held Nebraska without a field goal for nearly seven straight minutes. The Scarlet Knights couldn’t capitalize, making just three field goals in the time frame.
“I would love to go on a run during that seven minutes,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “That’s a heck of a defensive effort is what it is. But, if you’re not capitalizing on it down the other end then, you know. Again, we’ve got to score. We’re not the greatest scoring team to begin with. But when we have our nights and we’re making shots, we can beat anybody. Our defense keeps us in all these games and we’re going to win a few of them, too. That is what we’ve got to do. When we have those nights where we’re making all of our free throws and threes, then it makes it a little bit easier for the coach.”
1) Missed Opportunity
Corey Sanders made his discontent with how the end of the game played out known. With the alma mater playing and his teammates facing the student section as they do at the end of every home game, Sanders walked back and forth, bending over before facing the ceiling and back again, replaying the last few possessions of the game.
He wasn’t the reason Rutgers lost — it wouldn’t be in the game without his team-high 14 points — but he did end up on the wrong side of many crucial plays.
With two and a half minutes remaining, Sanders followed Nebraska point guard Glynn Watson step-for-step on the defensive end, contesting his dribble drive to near-perfection. But as good as Sanders’ defense was, Watson’s offense was better. The Husker nailed a circus shot similar to those that have become routine for Sanders to put Nebraska up by four with 2:30 remaining. The shot ended a near-seven minute stretch without a field goal for the visitors.
On the other end, Sanders tried to make amends, but his jumper missed the target. The teams traded blows as Rutgers kept it within one with less than a minute remaining. Once again, Corey Sanders was tasked with stopping Watson’s dribble penetration, but this time, his defense let him down. Watson blew by Sanders, who got lost in a screen, and hit a lay-up to put Nebraska up four with 30 seconds left.
Sanders again tried to make up for his defensive mistake — perhaps a bit too hard, though. He attacked the basket only to find two Husker defenders around him. The ball was stuffed, hit the bottom of the backboard, and out of bounds. Rutgers got another chance and the ball went right back to Sanders. This time, he was called for an offensive foul, essentially ending Rutgers hopes of taking the game.
It was far different than when these two teams met last season, when Sanders hit a crucial putback in the dying seconds which ended up being the game-winner for Rutgers. It’s a play he probably remembers, and one that Nebraska definitely did not forget.
”First of all, we remembered that he torched us last time and made the game-winning play,” said Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “That didn’t escape us. And we’re not the type of team that always accumulates causes and has revenge on the mind. But at the same time, we know how difficult it is to win here.”
Is it fair to say Sanders played a bit too much hero ball down the stretch? I think so. He went 6-for-17 after all, with a couple of his shots getting easily swatted by the Nebraska bigs.
But he and his team didn’t really have much of a choice other than that.
“Yeah,” Pikiell said when asked about Sanders driving to the basket frequently down the stretch. “We had to.”
2) Issa Thiam Comes Down To Earth
In his last time out at the RAC, Issa Thiam lit up the nets to the tune of 16 points on 55 percent shooting against Iowa, including a 4-for-6 clip from three. In Wednesday’s matchup with the Hawkeye’s bitter rival Nebraska, Thiam was the complete opposite.
The sophomore wing was ice cold from the floor, missing all seven of his three-point attempts on the night, most of which were pretty open. It was an off night at the worst time possible — if Thiam shot his average 41 percent from the floor, he’d hit three of his attempts, giving the Scarlet Knights an extra nine points to get them over the hump.
“If Issa (Thiam) gets 10 looks like that, (I’ll be happy),” Pikiell said. “I thought he got good looks and got to the rim ... Issa is shooting 42% from three. The other day, you saw him against Iowa. So, he can’t make them all the time. ... Shots are going to fall if he’s taking good ones. He’s a sophomore. ... Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. We haven’t been the greatest shooting team in the world to begin with. So, a night like this is going to happen.”
The off night didn’t deter Thiam from giving effort in other areas on the court. He provided six rebounds, two assists and his typical brand of tight defense. But in a game where Rutgers needed offensive production from someone — anyone — not named Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman or Geo Baker, Thiam fell well short of expectations
3) Most Intriguing Line-Up Of All-Time
With 9:11 remaining in the first half, Steve Pikiell rolled out the most bizarre line-up in recent Rutgers history — Souf Mensah, Jake Dadika, Matt Bullock, Deshawn Freeman, Candido Sa.
On paper, the rag-tag group is not meant to work on either end of the floor, with Freeman the only scoring option and the back court lacking a ball handler. But for the minute and a half they were on the floor together, Rutgers outscored Nebraska 3-2 thanks to a sequence as strange as the line-up.
Here’s how it went — Souf Mensah attacks the basket but misses the lay-up, only for Candido Sa to grab the board and miss the putback dunk. Deshawn Freeman then scooped the rebound, scored the lay-up with the foul and completed the and-one with a free throw.
While the line-up is not Pikiell’s first choice, the lack of depth due to injury means it may not be the last time we see the same five on the floor. Most of the time, it won’t be efficient, but at the very least, it’ll be entertaining.
4) Rutgers Played A Carbon Copy Of Itself
It can’t be stated enough — this one was ugly. There was some bad, bad basketball played at the RAC, something both teams thrive in. Both teams want to muddy games up, want to make it a rock fight where every single basket is a battle to get. In the end, Nebraska showed it does what Rutgers does, only better.
That frustration Rutgers fans felt when watching Nebraska defend their team? That’s how every other Big Ten team feels playing Rutgers.
Because this is the Fonseca Four, I’ll add a personal touch — this may have been the worst 40 minutes of basketball I ever witnessed. When I looked up at the clock and realized there was still eight minutes left at the under-8 timeout, I couldn’t help but slump into my seat with the realization that the ugliest game of the night may also be the longest.
Only two and a half more weeks until we do it again in Lincoln!