The rebuilding of the Rutgers men’s basketball team has been an up and down process in the second season with Steve Pikiell as head coach. Mired in a seven game losing streak, the majority of those defeats taking place with Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi sidelined with injuries, Pikiell continued to stick to his guns tonight in placing the importance of the culture he is building above all else. In a surprising move, senior captain Deshawn Freeman didn’t start the game for the first time all season. In fact, he sat the entire night on the bench in sweatpants, as the BTN announcers made it clear on the telecast that he was available. Pikiell was sending some type of message and whatever the specific reason was, it made a strong impression.
Pikiell on Freeman's DNP: “Just a coach’s decision, trying to get some energy and trying to change the lineup. I went with the guys that I thought could win us the game.”— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) February 14, 2018
It paid off in the short term and the long term, as Rutgers completed an improbable 67-58 victory in overtime. They had trailed by six points with less than a minute to play in regulation and more than 39 minutes overall in the game, but found a way to pull it out.
The start was a rough one yet again for Rutgers, as Steve Pikiell called a timeout down 8-2 not even three minutes into the game. Corey Sanders then hit a three-pointer and Geo Baker did soon after as well, as the Scarlet Knights clawed back into it. Rutgers then struggled and didn’t score for over 3 minutes, but only trailed 14-10 at the under-12 timeout of the first half. Northwestern held a +6 edge on the boards (10-4) and points in the paint (10-4), but had committed 4 early turnovers. Starting point guard Bryant McIntosh was on the bench after playing injured at the start of the game. Backup point guard Isiah Brown gave it away twice during that period and after the timeout, McIntosh was back in. Candido Sa then got Rutgers within two points soon after with a vicious dunk.
However, Northwestern settled down and looked more fluid on offense with McIntosh back in and extended a 17-14 lead to 23-14 with just over 8 minutes left in the half. After a layup from SOUF MENSAH, which was just his sixth field goal of the season, it was followed by the second three-pointer from Aaron Falzon, who gave Northwestern their biggest lead of the game so far, up 26-16. It was ultimately an 11-2 run before a layup from Issa Thiam cut the lead back to 10 points.
The Rutgers defense tightened and the Wildcats didn’t score for over four minutes, until a Vic Law three-pointer pushed the lead to 31-22. McIntosh literally had his right arm hanging and it was immobile, all while continuing to run the point for Northwestern. It was an extremely gutty performance from the leader of Chris Collins’ team.
The visitors led 33-24 at the break, as they shot 56% from the field, held a +5 rebounding margin and 18-12 edge with points in the paint. Corey Sanders led Rutgers with 11 points on 5 of 10 shooting in the first half, while the rest of the team was only 5 of 18, as five players had just one field goal each.
Rutgers came out focused after the break, jumping out to a 6-0 run, forcing a Northwestern timeout just three-plus minutes into the second half the score now 33-30. The defense was clicking too, as Geo Baker had this man’s block during the fast start to the second half.
It was short lived though, as Northwestern went on a 11-3 run and led 44-33 at the under-12 timeout in the second frame. Bryant McIntosh didn’t play in the second half after the 16:37 mark, gutting out a 2 point, 5 assist effort in 14 minutes of action. On the flip side, Deshawn Freeman sat the entire game due to a coaches decision.
Even as it looked to be slipping away, Rutgers continued to fight. Back to back baskets from Corey Sanders and Mike Williams cut the deficit to 45-39 with under nine minutes to play. After Lindsey extended the lead back to 8 points, Sanders broke down the zone and dished to Williams for a layup and the score was 47-41 at the under-8 timeout. Northwestern was mired in a 1 of 7 stretch from the field over three minutes and two Issa Thiam’s free throws cut the lead to four. After Scottie Lindsey made a tough bucket on the next possession, Issa ended a streak of 11 straight misses from behind the arc for Rutgers in this game, as Baker found him in the corner. Chris Collins called a timeout, as Northwestern was clinging to a 49-46 lead with 4:48 remaining.
After two free throws from Vic Law, the best offensive threat by far for Rutgers continued to heat up. Corey Sanders hit back to back baskets, a layup in traffic, followed by a contested jumper at the top of the key. Northwestern led by just 1 point at 51-50 and after being up for over 34 consecutive minutes in the game, the issue was never more in doubt than it was at this point.
After Scottie Lindsey made two free throws, Geo Baker took a three-point attempt to tie it and missed. On the next Northwestern possession, freshman Anthony Gaines made his shot from the corner behind the arc, doubling the lead and seemingly ending the comeback of Rutgers. However, Sanders was fouled on his own three-point attempt and he made all of them, the score now sitting at 56-53 Northwestern. After Aaron Falzon missed a wide open three at the top of the key, a timeout on the floor set the stage for Rutgers to tie it on the last possession. Corey Sanders continued his best Superman impression and made a deep, contested three to tie the game at 56. After a Gavin Skelly layup at the buzzer wasn’t good and his plea for a foul on Eugene Omoruyi fell on deaf ears, the game headed to overtime.
With the game tied at 58 midway though the extra session, Issa Thiam hit a massive three-pointer that sent the RAC faithful into a frenzy. After Northwestern turned it over on two consecutive possessions, a Corey Sanders floater that went in on a fortuitous bounce put Rutgers up five points with just over a minute to play in overtime. They would win running away, 67-58 was the final, finishing the game on an 11-0 run.
The Rutgers offense didn’t shoot much better tonight compared to the past few games, although 40% was an improvement, but they were much more organized in the halfcourt. There was better spacing, as Rutgers spread things out on the perimeter. Baker and Thiam were on the wings with Sanders bobbing and weaving at the top of the key, looking to create. It was the most effective Rutgers was on offense in this game and it paid off in a big way. It’s incredible, because there was zero inside presence for the Scarlet Knights in the halfcourt offense, other than Omoruyi, who isn’t skilled enough to be a sustainable top option in the post quite yet. Rutgers shot just 5 of 19 from three-point range, including 11 misses in a row, and couldn’t generate any transition offense. It’s wildly frustrating and wearing on the souls of every diehard Rutgers fan. And yet, this team scratched and clawed their way to a gutsy victory over the Wildcats, never giving up!
Corey Sanders was heroic, scoring a game high 30 points on 11 of 22 shooting from the floor. He made big shot after big shot in the second half, including the final ten points of regulation to send the game into overtime. He was a clutch 6 of 7 from the free throw line and added 6 rebounds, as well as a team high 4 assists. The only other player to score in double figures was Issa Thiam, whose two three’s down the stretch, including the game winner in overtime, were absolutely huge. He finished with 10 points, but the most improved part of his game shined as well, as he grabbed 8 rebounds. Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi looked better in their second game back from injury, as they each scored 8 points and played great defense down the stretch. Omoruyi added 10 rebounds as well, which was big with leading rebounder Deshawn Freeman on the bench. Don’t underestimate the effort of Candido Sa and Shaq Doorson, who were so important in the second half defensively in limiting Northwestern in the paint. Amazingly, Rutgers also won despite Geo Baker making just 1 of 11 from the floor.
Northwestern was led by Scottie Lindsey with 19 points, but he shot just 7 of 20 from the floor. Dererk Pardon has 12 early points, but didn’t score at all down the stretch, thanks to the defense of Sa and Doorson. The loss of McIntosh to injury was certainly a factor in the outcome as well.
Rutgers actually ended up outshooting the Wildcats 40% to 38% in the game, after Northwestern shot 56% in the opening frame. The Scarlet Knights held a +4 turnover margin and +4 rebounding margin in the game, which were big factors in the win. They held a 20-13 edge in second chance points and after missing eleven straight three’s, made three in the final minutes of the game. Their best player and best three-point shooter both made big shots when Rutgers needed them most. Of course, the team’s calling card, defense, was phenomenal in overtime, as Northwestern went scoreless the final 4:34 of the extra session. Despite playing into overtime, Rutgers held the Wildcats 12 points below their season scoring average.
The Scarlet Knights now head towards the Mason Dixon line for a road game at Maryland (17-11; 6-9) on Saturday night at 8 p.m. The Terps just blew out Northwestern over the weekend, winning at home by 16 points. They did suffer a four point loss earlier tonight at Nebraska, who are now 7-0 at home in Big Ten play. Rutgers will likely be 8-10 point underdogs at Maryland, but if they can play the type of defense they did tonight, coupled with the toughness they exhibited, they’ll have a chance if they can make some shots. At 3-12 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is now just one win away from 10th place in the conference and tied with Minnesota and Iowa with three victories, as well as having one more than Illinois.
Tonight was a great effort, even if it wasn’t very pretty. The victory tied the most Big Ten regular season victories for Rutgers since joining the league four seasons ago, a mark set in Pikiell's debut campaign. While the rebuild has been up and down, the rock solid culture that Pikiell continues to develop shined brightly tonight.
A thrilling @RutgersMBB comeback OT win over Northwestern was capped off by a 28-11 scoring run to end the game. That, thanks in large part to a game-tying 3-ptr by Corey Sanders with 5.9 sec left in regulation. Sanders, Eugene Omoruyi & @CoachPikiell spoke with the media after: pic.twitter.com/wHbbfrV83v— RVision (@RVisionRU) February 14, 2018