Losing is never the goal, but Rutgers made a statement in falling to Wisconsin 69-64 on Monday night. The Badgers came in having lost just 23 conference games at home in the past 17 years and already owned five KenPom top 100 wins this season. Rutgers has just 1 road win in four Big Ten seasons and lost at Wisconsin by 20+ in their previous two visits. Things were very different this time around, as Rutgers gave the #12th ranked Badgers all they could handle at home. While the Scarlet Knights couldn’t maintain their stellar play from the first half the entire game, they made it clear to the Big Ten they are improved and will be a dogfight for every conference opponent they play this season.
The first possession of the game flirted with disaster for Rutgers, as Geo Baker fell to the floor in pain. Fortunately, he just had the wind knocked out of him and came back in shortly after, quickly asserting himself. He scored 7 of Rutgers first 14 points, giving them a 5 point lead six plus minutes into the game on a drive and old school one handed scoop for the basket.
Rutgers played tremendously on the defensive end right from the start. As expected, Steve Pikiell rotated players on Wisconsin All-American Ethan Happ, using Shaq Doorson, Myles Johnson, Eugene Omoruyi, and even Shaq Carter at times. Happ had to work for every basket and Omoruyi drew yet another charge, his 12th of the season. Nothing was coming easy for the Badgers on the offensive end and Rutgers was doing a great job of limiting them to one shot per possession.
With Rutgers leading 16-15 midway through the opening frame, a Baker jumper was followed by Eugene Omoruyi picking a good time to get going. He scored on back to back possessions which sparked the Scarlet Knights on a key 6-0 run. After a two minutes scoreless stretch from both sides, Geo Baker drove but grabbed the jersey of his defender and was called for a offensive foul. The basket didn’t count and he headed to the bench with two fouls.
Seldom used Shaq Carter soon stepped up and was a revelation in the first half, coming off the bench to make all three of his shots, including a great up and under, drawing the foul on Happ that he finished for a three-point play. It gave Rutgers a 27-17 lead with three minutes left in the first half. He scored 7 points, grabbed 2 rebounds, and played solid defense.
The Badgers battled back, finished the half on a 9-4 run. Still, Rutgers went to the locker room leading Wisconsin 31-26 on 54% shooting. They also held Wisconsin, the top three-point shooting team in the Big Ten, to just 1 of 6 from behind the arc. Both teams committed just 5 turnovers and were tied at 16 with points in the paint. Overall, it was an impressive half by Pikiell’s team and once again, a team effort with multiple contributions.
Wisconsin came out fired up after the half, as Khalil Iverson scored two quick baskets, forcing Pikiell to call a timeout. Despite the Badgers jumping out to a 35-33 lead and scoring 9 points in less than two minutes, Rutgers maintainted their poise and a Omoruyi bucket in the paint tied it soon after.
Wisconsin lead 41-37 when Carter stepped up again, backing down his defender and scoring off a bank shot five feet from the rim. However, Wisconsin answered and soon after Baker picked up his third foul of the game with Rutgers trailing 43-39 with 13 minutes remaining in the game. Kobe King scored on that possession to push the lead to six and Rutgers was in serious danger.
Peter Kiss made his presence known, swiping a steal and going the length of the floor for a huge basket, putting Rutgers back within 4 points right before the game paused at the under-12 media timeout.
Out of the timeout, Carter had his shot blocked and Trice found Aleem Ford in the corner for just the Badgers third three-pointer of the game, giving Wisconsin its largest lead of the game at 48-41.
After some sloppy play from Omoruyi throughout the game, he made two big baskets for Rutgers, keeping them within striking distance at 52-45. On the following possession, he posted up guard Brad Davison and drew the contact and the foul. He made 1 of 2 as Rutgers trailed by six points with eight minutes to play.
Wisconsin fell into a rut and a three minute plus scoring drought, as the Rutgers defense tightened up with Happ on the bench. The problem was that the Scarlet Knights went cold at the same time and D’Mitrick Trice, who came in shooting 58% from downtown, made a big three on his first attempt of the game to put Wisconsin up nine points with under six to play. Trice made another bucket to push the lead to 11, the largest of the game, at 57-46. A Peter Kiss three ball at the top of the key cut the lead to 8, but it wasn’t enough for Rutgers to get back into it.
After Shaq Carter prevented a dunk on the other end of the floor and Iverson made 1 of 2 free throws, Baker made his first shot in what felt like forever and it was a three-pointer at the perfect time, cutting the lead to 58-52 with four minutes remaining in the game. Happ scored out of the timeout, but Ron Harper Jr. drove to the basket, banked it off the glass and converted the three-point play to cut the lead to five with three to play.
Omoruyi defended Happ well on the next possession, resulting in a miss, but Baker couldn’t make the long jumper on the next trip down the floor. Happ then drove and scooped in a basket as the shot clock expired, giving Wisconsin a seven point lead with two minutes remaining. Omoruyi stepped up by making both free throws after being fouled cutting the lead back to five. He then fouled Happ on the next Wisconsin possession, but it was called a flagrant one, putting the big man on the line for two shots and giving them the ball back. Happ missed both, the only weakness in his game, but Trice made a killer three to extend the lead to eight. Baker hit a late three, but Wisconsin defeated Rutgers 69-64. Happ scored a game high 20 points on 10 of 17 shooting.
The shot selection of Rutgers cost them in the second half, as they settled for too many contested jump shots and failed to attack the rim, something that worked so well in the first half. On the other end, the Badgers were more aggressive and wore down Rutgers, outscoring them 43-33 in the second half behind 59% shooting.
Rutgers shot 47% from the floor for the game, respectable after a busy week that included two road trips. They made 5 of 16 from three, committed a season low 8 turnovers and held a +3 rebounding margin on the Badgers.
Omoruyi, Baker and Kiss finished in double digits scoring wise. Omoruyi finished with a team high 17 points on 7 of 14 shooting and team high 8 rebounds. Baker scored 15 points on just 6 of 16 shooting, but did make 3 of 5 from behind the arc. Geo did have only 1 assist, with 2 turnovers and 4 fouls. Kiss forced some shots at times, but credit him for being aggressive and he finished with 12 points on 5 of 11 shooting and 2 of 5 from three-point range. He did play a complete game, adding 5 boards, 4 assists, and 1 steal.
Carter led the bench with 9 points on 4 of 5 from the floor and 4 rebounds in 18 minutes of play. It was an encouraging performance for the junior, his best game so far after playing just 14 minutes in the previous 4 games. Harper Jr. forced it a bit at times, but showed flashes as well, finishing with 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting, but his struggles continue from behind the arc, going 0 for 3.
After a three game, six day gauntlet that Rutgers represented themselves very well through the hardest stretch of the season based on the KenPom rankings of who they played. The Scarlet Knights can head home and catch its collective breath having gained a lot of valuable experience. They’ll have plenty of time to learn from this past week, as they play just four games in the next month, all on Saturdays, starting this weekend at Fordham. Despite a disappointing loss, it was a sentiment for the right reasons, because Rutgers (5-3) had a legitimate chance to beat a top ranked team on its home floor in the hardest place to do so in the Big Ten. Progress is occurring just eight games into the season and the next month of extended practice time can only help before Big Ten play resumes in January.
For Dave White’s Four Thoughts, click here.