It was a steep hill to climb from the outset for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. They were visiting Ohio State, a team they lost to by 22 points at the RAC earlier this season. It was senior night for the Buckeyes, as four players were being honored. Starting guard Geo Baker, who has been very reliable even as a freshman this season, failed to make the trip and was out with the flu. Rutgers fell into a deep hole early on, trailing by 19 points in the first half. After a hard fought comeback that cut the deficit to just five points at the break, the Scarlet Knights couldn’t stop a second huge run from the Buckeyes and the flood gates opened up after halftime. They ultimately fell by the score of 79-52.
After an early 4-1 lead behind baskets from Eugene Omoruyi and Mike Williams, Ohio State got rolling behind two Kam Williams three-pointers that ignited a 14-2 run. Rutgers wasn’t playing poorly, but the offense fell into a 1 of 7 drought from the field and Rutgers trailed 15-6 with 12:33 remaining in the opening frame. The Buckeyes started a red hot 7 of 10 from the field.
Rutgers continued to battle and a Issa Thiam layup cut the lead to 19-11 with just over nine minutes left in the first half. Ohio State then shifted into high gear and put up a deflating 11-0 run. It looked like it would be another long night, as Rutgers trailed by 19 points with over six minutes left before the break. However, Steve Pikiell’s shorthanded club responded in a big way and it was started by a player who has been struggling of late.
They got off the mat thanks to Deshawn Freeman, who came off the bench for the third straight game, including not playing at all last week in the win over Northwestern due to a coaches decision. It was good to see the senior captain get going in a game his teammates really needed him to. Freeman scored on a three-point play the hard way, followed by draining just his third three-pointer of the season. A layup from Corey Sanders and two baskets from Thiam, who posted up near the rim on both, saw Rutgers get back into the game, trailing 30-23 with 2:49 left before halftime. Instead of getting close but fading before the half, Rutgers continued to play well on both ends of the floor.
The Buckeyes finished the half by shooting just 1 of 8 from the floor and failed to score the final 2:25 before the break. Sanders and Omoruyi both made baskets in the final minute plus and Rutgers finished the first half on an impressive 16-2 run. The Scarlet Knights made 7 of its last 8 shots before halftime. Ohio State still led 32-27 and shot 52% from the floor, despite their struggles late in the opening frame. Rutgers held a +2 edge on the boards but were -1 in turnover margin. A big key was the Scarlet Knights kept the Buckeyes from points in transition, as they held a 6-3 edge in fast break points.
Of course, halftime came at a bad time for Rutgers. Predictably, they were unable to recapture that hot streak they were on before the break. Ohio State put up six quick points behind a three-point play from Kaleb Wesson and a three-pointer from C.J. Jackson. Pikiell called a timeout to regroup his troops, but it didn’t prevent Ohio State from going up 40-27 behind another Jackson basket. Rutgers continues to struggle at the start of both halves and while you have to love the fight they show, they keep digging themselves into holes too big to overcome.
While Freeman did provide a spark off the bench in the first half, two plays highlighted how frustrating he can be. The first time he touched the ball in the game, he immediately dribbled it off his foot. Now in the second half, Rutgers was down 11 points and needed a basket. After the team moved the ball well on the perimeter, Freeman got it, dribbled the ball to death and took a contested 15 foot jump shot with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock. He failed to hit the rim and after a timeout, the Buckeyes scored again behind another basket from Jackson. Rutgers never got closer the rest of the way, as Ohio State ended up starting the second half on a 18-2 run and led 48-29 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the game. It only got worse from there, as the Scarlet Knights trailed by 20-plus points the entire final ten minutes of the game. Ohio State won in convincing fashion by 27 points.
It’s incredible that the Big Ten Player of the Year frontrunner, Keita Bates-Diop, only scored 6 points and Ohio State still won easily, which sums up the night. They were led by C.J. Jackson who had 18 points, followed by 14 points from Kaleb Wesson and 13 from Kam Williams. Ohio State shot 59% from the floor in the game and were 9 of 23 for 39% from three-point range.
The absence of Geo Baker was obviously a factor, as Rutgers sorely missed his steady hand and ball movement on offense. Regardless, it was an uneven performance from Rutgers, who completely fell apart after halftime. It was most evident on the glass, as Ohio State bloodied the visitors on the boards in the second frame by a 21-8 margin. The Buckeyes also scored 3 points over their season average in the game, making them just the third Big Ten team to do that against Rutgers in conference play.
Corey Sanders led Rutgers with 12 points on 6 of 15 shooting. He added 3 rebounds and 2 assists, while committing just 1 turnover. Freeman added 11 points, but had just 2 rebounds and committed 4 turnovers. Both players disrupted the flow on offense at times by dribbling too much and failing to get their teammates involved.
With his three-point shot not falling, Issa Thiam showed he is developing his game by scoring near the rim, which is encouraging. The fact that he is starting to look to score in different ways and actually finishing at times demonstrates growth. He finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds. Without Baker, Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi took just 5 shots apiece, each scoring only 4 points. Williams grabbed 5 boards, while Eugene had 4.
The Scarlet Knights have now gone winless on the road in Big Ten play in three of their four seasons in the conference.
Rutgers now returns home for their own senior day on Sunday against Illinois. They’ll be looking for a repeat of last season, when they defeated the Illini in the regular season finale at the RAC. Both teams have just three Big Ten wins and the schedule for Illinois is absolutely brutal in the final week of the regular season. They lost at Michigan State tonight and take on Purdue at home on Thursday night, before visiting Rutgers three days later. The loser of that matchup will likely finish in last place in the Big Ten.
As frustrating as it has been to watch Rutgers down the stretch this season, the fact is they still have something to play for on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights have never finished better than in the caboose position since joining the Big Ten. They have a chance for redemption against Illinois, which was their worst conference performance this season in the first meeting in Champaign a few weeks ago. Rutgers was able to build off of the positive momentum of beating Illinois last season by winning its opening game in the Big Ten Tournament. There is hope, despite tonight’s loss, that they can do it again. However, in order to do so, the leaders of this team need to come together or the season will end on a down note.
For Dave White's four thoughts, click here.