PISCATAWAY — On a night where the temperatures dipped to the single digits outside, the Rutgers men’s basketball team heated up inside the Rutgers Athletic Center.
The Scarlet Knights often struggle to make shots, but that wasn’t the case Friday night against Wisconsin. They hit 13 of their final 18 shots against the Badgers, including a 62.5 percent clip from behind the arc, its best percentage under head coach Steve Pikiell, and overcame a late run from the visitors to close out a 64-60 win.
“These guys have been great,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “They stayed the course and plug away. I like this team a lot. I know we had a stretch there where we didn’t play as well as we would like, but you have to learn. When you’re building a program, you have to learn from those things. I think that they did and they came back and practiced well and they got rewarded today against a good team. But our defense was good today from start to finish. That’s a big key for us and we grinded out a win.”
The win killed two birds with one stone — it comes a year after Rutgers lost a tight overtime battle with Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden and ends a three-game losing streak.
For Pikiell, it was just another step in the build.
”You guys make too much out of wins,” Pikiell said. “We’re a program in progress that’s plugging away. We have good things going on. We had seven guys with 3.0’s and four guys on the Dean’s list. We’re building a new practice facility. This program is going to be good and they have to stay the course. Today was a good win. We’ll get ready. We have a difficult task at Michigan State, who’s a good team, and we will be well prepared and go there and play.”
Fonseca’s Four Observations:
1) Rutgers did a great job defending Ethan Happ
In a down year for Wisconsin, Ethan Happ remains at the top of the Big Ten on an individual level. The center ranks in the top 10 within the conference in scoring, field goal percentage and rebounding, an unstoppable force who almost single-handedly beat the Scarlet Knights a year ago at Madison Square Garden.
Friday night at the RAC was a different story.
Rutgers defended Happ incredibly well all night, mixing up defenders and coverages and pestering him all night. Between Deshawn Freeman, Eugene Omoruyi and Candido Sa, Happ was held to 10 points and 10 rebounds, a mediocre statline made worse by seven turnovers (more on that below).
For most of the night, Happ looked helpless.
“We play two types of defense,” Omoruyi said. “I feel like giving (the bigs) those looks really affected him because he’d adjust to one and another type of defense would come on him. I felt like he was kind of complacent trying to find his rhythm.”
The strategy was similar to what Rutgers employed with success against Angel Delgado in a win over Seton Hall. That afternoon, the Scarlet Knights held the Pirates big to seven points.
“I think it really affects players because they try to change the way they play a bit and try to find ways to score against that particular defense and then we bring a new guy and his defense,” Omoruyi said. “They end up losing their minds sometimes.”
2) Corey Sanders Was On
With an offense which struggles to create, Rutgers needs a player to step up and provide a spark in key moments to find success. Corey Sanders was that man in a marquee win over Seton Hall, and he put his clutchness on display once again against the Badgers.
Sanders finished a game-high 23 points on 10-for-19 shooting, 13 of which came in a big second half for the Scarlet Knights. Sanders accounted for five of his team’s last 13 makes, including a deep three from The RAC sign with Ethan Happ in his grill.
Corey Sanders from 3. Onions. pic.twitter.com/SqXzVIKXqm— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) January 6, 2018
”We just came down and coach drew up plays during the timeout, our go-to plays and the same plays, if you go look at it, as we did against Seton Hall,” Sanders said. “D told me to come out and be aggressive and to get our shots up. He gave me some room, I pulled up and it fell for me. I got the switch on Happ, and he’s such a long defender so it’s hard to go by him. I’ve been working on that shot in the gym at night, so I put it up there. We came up with the win. Everyone that’s up here fought hard, especially Eugene who came in with everything he had. D too and Candido. I’m just proud of our team.”
Rutgers needs a similar performance from Sanders for sustained success in Big Ten play. But for as much attention the guard got for his offense, the same was given by the defensive minded Pikiell to his effort on the other end of the floor.
“Everyone always talks about his offense, but I thought he was really good defensively today against a really good point guard who’s the leading scorer freshman guard in our league,” Pikiell said. “I thought he did a great job and nothing easy for him today. He’s our key to the gage. I’m pleased when shots go in, but I’m really pleased with his defense and his effort, which was really a bonus today.”
3) Rutgers Dominated the Turnover Margin
One key statistic stands out above the rest when looking at the box score — turnovers.
The Scarlet Knights forced Wisconsin to turn the ball over 14 times in a variety of ways, leading directly to 11 points for the home side.
”That’s too many. That needs to be cut in half,” said Wisconsin coach Greg Gard. “That’s where it needs to be. I’ll look and see what the turnovers were. They were a couple charges. I’ll see if those were self-inflicted or something defensively that was taken away. I’ll go through the film and grade it. I’ll get a better idea from that.”
For its part, Rutgers only gave up the ball six times, the least turnovers its ever had in a Big Ten conference game.
“We focused on not turning the ball over,” Omoruyi said. “We knew they play inside-to-out so if (Happ) got the ball, he’d try to pass it out. So we knew if we could get him to turn the ball over, the play would be done.”
4) The ending felt oddly familiar
I’ll let my tweet do the talking for me.
This win is almost exactly like Seton Hall.— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) January 6, 2018
- Rutgers stopped an All-American caliber center.
- Corey Sanders played hero.
- Mike Williams went 1-for-2 from the line in a clutch moment.
- Eugene Omoruyi iced the win from the free throw line.
”I just thought we had relentless effort. Everyone came into the game and gave us some great stuff. We were able to move them side to side. We made some timely plays down the stretch and every guy up here made a big rebound and made a big jump shot. So, it was a great team win. Everyone that checked into the game was locked in and ready to play.” -- Rutgers head coach Steve PIkiell.
“Coach Young says all the time we need to make winning plays. Today, we made a lot of winning plays. Eugene (Omoruyi) got that big charge that ended the game, big rebounds and those free throws. As long as we play as hard as we can, play our basketball, we’ll win some games … (Mike Williams diving for the ball and making pass to Geo Baker late in the second half) are plays we always talk about, getting on the floor. If you come to our practices, you see people diving on the floor and those are all little things that are going to take us a long way.” -- Rutgers guard Corey Sanders.
“I think the culture that Steve is tried to create from how hard they play on the defensive end, that’s become a little more entrenched. I know that takes a while to make that happen. And Corey is another year older and Geo Baker is a good compliment to him. Freeman is a good player and they have other complimentary players. Mike Williams has been a career sixth man and does a good job of it. Thiam does a good job in his role. They have other guys who understand what there roles are and buy into it.” -- Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard
”I think defensively we made it hard on each other. It’s typically a rock fight when we get together. It was like that last year. That’s just two teams that make it hard to get good looks. You try to as much as you can to eliminate looks right at the rim, and both teams for the most part did a good job. We had some breakdowns at times with separation, and they had breakdowns at times to allow us to crawl back in it. You try to be consistent as possible, that’s what everyone is striving for.” -- Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard