COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Lightning didn’t strike twice for the Scarlet Knights.
Just as it did in its midweek matchup with Northwestern, Rutgers headed into halftime of Saturday’s meeting with Maryland with a significant deficit after trailing the entire first half.
There would be no comeback this time, however, as the Terrapins didn’t sit on their laurels — they stepped on the Scarlet Knights throats.
A 12-point deficit turned into Maryland doubling up the Scarlet Knights, 38-19, within two minutes of the second half and expanded to as much as 24 before eventually settling on the final score of 61-51.
“Obviously we got off to another bad start,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “It’s been a trademark the last few games for us. After that, I thought we played them even. But you can’t spot a good team, a well-coached team, on the road. We couldn’t do anything with Fernando, he was a monster. They got good players. We have to play better on the road. They’re a terrific home team.”
It marked the 16th time Rutgers fell this season and all but guaranteed the Scarlet Knights will finish in the bottom four in the Big Ten, forcing an early start to their conference tournament campaign.
The start was rough for the Scarlet Knights on either side of the floor and it never got better. As their hosts raced out to a 10-0 lead after hitting 5 of its first 6 shots, Rutgers failed to hit all but one of its first nine shots. It could have gone even worse had the Terrapins taken advantage of multiple good looks from beyond the arc, but luck was on the Scarlet Knights side. The visitors took advantage of the rough shooting stretch from Maryland and reduced the deficit to seven behind a quick 10-4 run.
It was the closest they came to a comeback all night.
Just as they did in the first half, Terrapins opened the second frame on a 17-7 run en route to a game-high 24 point lead with 15 minutes to play. Rutgers came within seven points with a minute to play behind a 15-3 run, but it was too little, too late.
“We just got to come out with energy and fight,” said senior guard Mike Williams when asked how to sustain level of play from that 15-3 run throughout the entire game. “Instead we were getting our butts kicked with two (17-7) runs. We just got to come out and play that way the whole game. When we find out how to play a complete game like we did against Northwestern, there’s no way we can’t play with anybody.”
1) No Sanders, No Party
Every night spent watching the Rutgers men’s basketball team is predated by the eternal question facing the Scarlet Knights — what kind of night is streaky star Corey Sanders going to have tonight? Will he take over and carry his team behind a 30-point performance like he did against Northwestern, or will he finish in the single-digits like he did in a trip to Penn State last month?
The answer on Saturday night was the latter.
Sanders ended with 6 points on 3-for-13 shooting (23 percent), two assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes. His jump shot wasn’t falling, and neither were any of his open looks from downtown.
Rutgers worked around its star’s struggles, stringing together a couple of runs behind inspired play from Issa Thiam and Deshawn Freeman, but it never came close to threatening the Terps.
Like many college basketball players often do, Sanders had an off-night. The issue for him, however, is that his team doesn’t have any other scoring options.
“Teams key in on Corey but we have other players too,” Pikiell said. “Those guys have to step up and do a really good job.”
Rutgers needs Sanders to be great night in and night out to have a chance to win most games in the Big Ten, setting expectations for him higher than most of his colleagues. It’s the price that comes with being the star player, a responsibility Sanders is aware of and embraces, but one that takes a toll on both him and his team over the course of a long season filled with countless beatdowns.
There’s nothing Steve Pikiell can do to change that this year. What you see is what you get with this team, and it will stay that way for however long this season lasts.
It won’t always be that way — Rutgers has 4-star shooting guard Montez Mathis waiting on the wings and Pikiell is working diligently on the recruiting trail for 2019, reportedly pursuing bonafide scorers like Paul Mulcahy and Aundre Hyatt as hard as he possibly could.
But for now, Rutgers goes where Corey Sanders takes it. Sometimes, that’s to victory. Other times, like Saturday, it’s to the other side.
2) Eugene Omoruyi’s Comeback Story Adds Another Chapter
Few people expected the sophomore forward to return to action this season after his gruesome injury against Nebraska. Even less could’ve foreseen Omoruyi picking up where he left off.
After an 8-point, 39 minute performance against Northwestern, Omoruyi led the Scarlet Knights with a team-high 11 points on an efficient 5-for-7 shooting in 21 minutes against Maryland.
“Just excited to get him back,” Pikiell said. “I didn’t expect to have him at all this season. Just thankful he and Mike are back. I didn’t think we’d have either of them. They’ve helped us a lot and (you) see the different things that they do and they’re still kinds rounding back into shape.”
Omoruyi’s form also resumed on the defensive side of the ball. He picked up three charges on the night, adding to his already astronomical team-lead in the category.
“Just staying positive and forgetting the injury,” Omoruyi said of how he bounced back so fast. “It was a crazy injury. I haven’t really gotten injured before so now it’s just an experience that I gotta get past. It’s just a learning experience and (I have to) keep going I guess ... Any time I step on the court, I try to help my team win. Just to take a charge, just to get the guys hyped up. Just to score, to rebound, get an assist. Anything I can do. Just the little things.”
3) Jake Dadika Walks On, Makes A Difference
Pikiell was not happy with the way his offense was operating through the first 25 minutes of action. The Scarlet Knights were making poor decisions with their shot selection (11-for-35) and passing (10 turnovers) and down by 24 points.
So he reached to the end of his bench and grabbed walk-on guard Jake Dadika. The senior captain played six minutes of action and missed his sole jump shot, but Rutgers outscored the Terrapins 10-5 during his time on the floor.
“Just thought Jake did a great job,” Pikiell said. “His six minutes were terrific. He got the ball moving side to side, I was really harping on that in every huddle and I wasn’t seeming to get anywhere with it. Told Jake that I needed him to do that and he went right in and did what we needed him to do. He played good defense, too. (Anthony) Cowan’s tough guy to guard. So real pleased with his minutes and if he keeps playing like that, he’ll get more minutes.”
4) Another Win, Another Stinker
As has become custom this season, Rutgers fell hard from an emotional high after a win. Asked if it brings concerns as he continues to try and build this program, Steve Pikiell pinned the struggles on the high level of play of the Big Ten conference.
“This is a great league,” he said. “We just played a team that’s (14-2) at home and preseason top-25 team. We gotta play better. When we deserve to win a game like this, we will. We didn’t play well enough today to win. I gotta give them credit. When you build a program you gotta take over a lot of obstacles and I’m excited to be the coach here and I gotta live through these obstacles. Nothing’s easy in this league. This is the best league in the country — I don’t care what anybody says -- from top to bottom the best league. Trying to win on the road in this league is as hard as any league in the country. You gotta keep fighting. We started two freshmen today and two sophomores and a junior. We gotta continue to work through it. We got three wins right now in the league, that’s what we had last season at the end. We got a couple more games to make that a little bit better and we gotta fight through the end.”