Just two nights removed from a 31 point defeat to #13 Purdue, the worst of the Pikiell era so far, Rutgers responded in a big way at the RAC on Friday. In a close affair the entire game, the Scarlet Knights were able to reverse its fortune against a Wisconsin team they failed to close out against last season at the Garden. This time in front of their home fans, Rutgers was able to win its first Big Ten game of the season by the score of 64-60 behind a stellar performance by Corey Sanders.
The start of this game was ugly and made it clear it was going to be a struggle on offense for both teams. It took three minutes and forty five seconds before Wisconsin broke the scoreless game with a three-point play by Nate Reuvers. After the Badgers led 5-2, Rutgers went on a 11-4 run, capped by a Geo Baker three and were up 13-9 with 11:28 left in the first half.
It was 17-15 Rutgers when Corey Sanders hit a big jumper while Wisconsin was mired in what was ultimately a five minute stretch of scoreless play. Badgers star center, Ethan Happ, had a poor first half, as Rutgers was frustrating him with different looks, including doubling him, trapping him, and hedging over at times. Happ only took four shots in the opening frame and had just 6 points and had committed 5 turnovers heading to the locker room.
Unfortunately, Rutgers failed to take advantage, as they fell into a 1 of 8 funk shooting from the floor. They snapped out of it when Eugene Omoruyi forced a jumper as the shot clock was expiring. He missed it, but Issa Thiam grabbed the offensive rebound and found Deshawn Freeman, who knocked down a wide open three-pointer. On the next possesion, Pritzl was fouled from behind the arc and made all three free throws. The half ended with Sanders driving as the game clock was expiring and he finished an incredibly tough shot that banked in at buzzer.
Rutgers led 25-24 at the break, but it felt like they missed out on taking more control in the game during that opening half. They took 10 more shots than Wisconsin but made just 33.3% of its attempts. The Scarlet Knights also held a +6 turnover margin, but were outrebounded 20 to 14 by the Badgers, who shot 38% in the opening frame.
Wisconsin started the second half strong, opening with a 9-3 run before Eugene Omoruyi completed a three-point play to cut the Badger lead to 33-31 with 16:12 left in the game. Candido Sa scored his first basket of the game on the next possession and the two teams were tied at the under-16 timeout.
After the Badgers took the lead on a dunk by Aleem Ford, Rutgers took it right back on the next possession, as Corey Sanders hit a big three at the top of the key as the shot clock was expiring. He then found Freeman for a layup on the next trip down the floor, forcing Wisconsin coach Greg Gard to call a 30 second timeout. It didn’t help the Badgers, as Geo Baker found Sanders for an alley-oop dunk to give Rutgers a 40-35 lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game.
Wisconsin really doesn't like the RAC. pic.twitter.com/zoMNlUx0CT— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) January 6, 2018
After a Wisconsin turnover and a TV timeout, Baker made a basket to cap a 9-0 run and give Rutgers a 7 point lead. The Scarlet Knights were 7 of 12 shooting in the second half at that point.
Wisconsin refused to go quietly, as Pritzl completed a three-point play on the next possession. Reuvers scored soon after and the lead was quickly down to 2 points. Enter senior captain Mike Williams, who had just 2 points at this juncture in the game. He made a tough jumper, and then got to the free throw line in transition off of a Freeman steal. He made just 1 of 2 though, as Rutgers was only 3 of 7 from the line midway through the second half. However, the lead was back to 5 points with RU leading 45-40 with 9:52 remaining in the game.
Wisconsin’s sense of urgency picked up and it spurned a 6-2 run that cut the Rutgers lead to 1 at the under-8 TV timeout was taken with 5:54 to play. However, Freeman was fouled on the next possession and made both from the charity stripe to give Rutgers a 49-46 lead. Both teams were hot from the field during this stretch, as RU made 6 of 7 shots and Wisconsin had made 5 of 7.
After a Happ miss at the free throw line, Baker made a clutch jumper to take a five point lead. On the next Wisconsin possession, Happ committed an offensive foul as Omoruyi took a charge. Soon after, Omoruyi stole the basketball and found Freeman in transition, who smoothly navigated in traffic and threw down an emphatic slam dunk to rock the RAC faithful and give Rutgers a 53-46 lead with 3:33 left, as the Badgers called a timeout.
Since @Cant_Guard33 got The RAC on its feet with this next-level jam, the Badgers have gone on a 7-0 run to tie the game.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 6, 2018
It's been a back-and-forth affair between @RutgersMBB and Wisconsin: pic.twitter.com/IyRcGlYE5f
This was an eerily similar situation to last season’s game at the Garden against Wisconsin, when Rutgers led by 9 points with 3:22 to play. As we know, the Scarlet Knights dropped a heartbreaker in overtime, as Happ dominated the game down the stretch. It appeared to be deja vu all over again, as a pair of made free throws, a missed layup by Baker and a dunk by Khalil Iverson quickly cut the lead to three points with three minutes remaining. Then the Badgers tied it on a Brad Davison three-pointer, the first shot made behind the arc all night for the visitors.
However, as he had done all night, Corey Sanders stepped up and took matters into his own hands. Davison made a freshman mistake and said something to him out of the timeout, which Sanders made him pay for. The Rutgers star made a huge jump shot to give Rutgers a two point lead. After a clutch rebound by who else but Mike Williams, Sanders then nailed a three-pointer. He changed the game on those two shots.
This was pretty much the dagger. @C_Sanders3 helped put the Badgers away as he cashed out from beyond the arc, and his @RutgersMBB squad snaps a three-game losing streak.— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 6, 2018
Rutgers 64, Wisconsin 60. pic.twitter.com/vheU9xuU3p
Omoruyi then drew his second charge of the game and after one free throw made by Sanders, Rutgers led 59-53. That surge gave the Scarlet Knights enough cushion and after Omoruyi iced it with two made free throws, followed by a Freeman dunk, redemption from last season’s loss to the Badgers was complete.
After Happ tore out the hearts of Rutgers last season in a 32 point performance, he struggled tonight, despite delivering a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He committed 7 turnovers and was just 4 of 10 from the field. The defense of Omoruyi and at times, Sa, was a big factor in his struggles. Pritzl and Davison led Wisconsin with 13 points each.
Sanders finished with 23 points and just like in the Seton Hall win, he took over like the star he is down the stretch. He was 10 of 19 from the floor and added 4 rebounds. Freeman also shot well, making 6 of 12 shots for 15 points and chipped in 4 boards. No other Rutgers players finished in double digits. Omoruyi did plenty though, as he had 6 points, 6 rebounds and drew those two huge charges in the game, frustrating Happ all night. The defense of Rutgers was where it needs to be for them to be able to win in Big Ten play.
As a team, Rutgers held a +8 turnover margin and a 11-4 points advantage off of them. Wisconsin (9-8; 2-2) shot 49% from the floor, while RU shot 46%. Despite making just 9 of 16 free throws, Rutgers was a scorching 5 of 8 (56%) from behind the arc, while the Badgers made just 2 of 13, including a desperation three at the final buzzer. Credit the Scarlet Knights for a strong offensive effort in the second half, making 6 of 8 free throws down the stretch and shooting 61% from the floor.
Next up for Rutgers (11-6; 1-3) is a rematch against the top ranked team in the country, Michigan State (15-1; 3-0), on the road next Wednesday. In the first meeting on December 5th, the Scarlet Knights gave the Spartans all they could handle, but ultimately fell by 10 points at the RAC. It’s the closest victory Michigan State has had all season, who just blew out Maryland by 30 points on Thursday night. Playing in East Lansing makes this a much more difficult matchup for Rutgers, but they’ll bring confidence with them after tonight’s victory.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a gutty performance from Steve Pikiell’s team. The three game losing streak is over and Rutgers has its first conference win of the season. There is plenty of basketball remaining and the Scarlet Knights took a step forward tonight. Don’t count this team out, as this game reminded us of how fun it is to watch this team win ugly!
For Dave White's four thoughts on what this means for the rebuild, click here.