PISCATAWAY — As the clock struck 11:11 on the East Coast, the Rutgers men’s basketball team got its wish.
The Scarlet Knights trailed the entire night to visiting Northwestern, needing a 10-point comeback in the final 10 minutes to push the game to overtime. With 2:15 to go in the extra period, Issa Thiam got the ball in the left corner and let it fly. He had made just one of his five attempts from deep on the night, but there was no hestitation from the sophomore wing. He, much like his team and the 3,827 fans who came out for the late 9 p.m. tip, was rewarded for his perserverence.
Nothing but net.
“I thought Issa hung with it and he always plays pretty good defense and he had to work on that end of the floor today too,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Then he grabbed some big rebounds. Again, great day for him, and I think for everyone.”
Rutgers took its first lead of the night at 61-58 and never looked back, finishing the Wildcats off with a 11-0 run to seal a 67-58 come-from-behind win to snap a seven-game losing skid. The Scarlet Knights closed the game on a 32-13 run in the final 15 minutes of action.
“Thankful for the crowd tonight,” Pikiell said. “Late night, late night. They were loud at the end, and I appreciate it very much. I’m happy and proud for our guys. We’ve had a tough stretch. We’ve gotten through injuries, we’ve gotten through a lot of different things. These guys were awesome.”
The play that ended with Thiam giving Rutgers its first lead was started by the man who led the Scarlet Knights in their ferocious comeback. As he’s done on multiple occasions throughout his career at Rutgers, Corey Sanders took over down the stretch. He scored the final 10 points in regulation for Rutgers, including six points in the final minute. Sanders capped off the comeback with a deep three with a little over five seconds to play, awakening the late-night crowd into the loudest roars of the night.
Made it back to the RAC just in time to see Corey Sanders tie the game at 56. Northwestern has 1.6 to respond. pic.twitter.com/Wcy97xppRt— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) February 14, 2018
“It feels great. That’s what you work for, what you dream of,” Sanders said. “I’ve been here, about to finish up my third year, it’s been nothing but love for me here. I love this place so it feels great.”
All the attention naturally shifts towards that shot, but Sanders’ head coach looked towards the three points before as the more crucial bunch. The guard was fouled on a three-point attempt with a minute to play and knocked down all three attempts from the stripe, continuing the fortune the Scarlet Knights saw on the foul line all night. They finished 14-for-18 from the free throw line, using an area that often killed any hopes of victory and turned it into a strength.
“I get a million emails a week about free throw shooting, so I hope for one night I won’t get that,” Pikiell said. “We made them down the stretch. I think we’re seven for seven down the stretch to kind of ice the game.”
But before they iced the game, they needed their star player to come up big. Sanders didn’t hesitate to answer the call.
“My teammates believe in me, my coach believes in me, that’s all you can ask for,” Sanders said. “Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t. Tonight it went in. It feels good, but it feels even better to get a win. 7-game losing streak, doesn’t feel good but it feels good now.”