Senior day did not play out the way Rutgers wanted it to. Candido Sa missed the game with an injury suffered in practice. Corey Sanders played with a foot issue, per the BTN announcers. And Geo Baker, back from missing Tuesday’s game with the flu, lost nine pounds in the past week and looked sluggish. In addition, Rutgers played sloppy at times and couldn’t sustain enough runs to end the home season on a positive note. Illinois had a solid lead most of the final ten minutes of the contest and won 75-62.
Rutgers came out with energy and purpose, as they jumped out to an early 8-4 lead in the first three minutes of the game. Ball movement and finding the open man were made a priority in the halfcourt offense and it was working. Illinois then made a couple shots on the other end and the Scarlet Knights lost focus and went cold, missing six straight shots. The Illini used an 11-1 run to assert control before Corey Sanders hit a jumper to close the gap to 15-11 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the opening frame.
Mike Williams got going on senior day, knocking down a big three-pointer and then grabbed a rebound on the defensive end. He was then wide open behind the arc on the next possession, but Deshawn Freeman threw a high pass and it went out of bounds. Turnovers were an issue, as Rutgers committed eight in the first half and Illinois held a 9-5 edge in points off of them. Even so, they were playing hard and two Eugene Omoruyi free throws brought the Scarlet Knights within one at 22-21. Both teams were in the bonus with seven minutes to play in the half. Michael Finke and Freeman traded three-point plays the hard way and soon after, a Sanders banked home a contested runner to give Rutgers a 26-25 lead with less than six minutes left in the first half. Unfortunately, Sanders fouled Te’Jon Lucas on the next Illinois possession and he made both free throws to take the lead back.
After some helter skelter play from both teams, an Aaron Jordan three-pointer forced Steve Pikiell to call a timeout with Rutgers trailing Illinois 31-26 with 3:30 remaining in the first half. The Illini extended the lead even further and went to the locker room at the break leading, finishing the half on a 10-4 run. However, both teams struggled shooting down the stretch, as neither team had a field goal in the final 2:38 of the first half.
Both teams shot similarly from the field in the opening frame (Illinois 43%, RU 42%), but free throws were a big factor in the half. Illinois made 7 of 9, while Rutgers made 8 of 12. The Scarlet Knights held a +2 edge on the boards and 14-10 edge with points in the paint, but 21 bench points from Illinois and zero from Rutgers made a big difference.
After the break, it was another strong start to the half for the home team, as Rutgers went on a 6-0 run in the first two minutes to take a 36-35 lead after a fast break was created by a Freeman block and then the senior co-captain found Omoruyi on the break for the layup.
Illinois leading scorer, Leron Black, picked up his third foul and went to the bench. Unfortunately, Freeman also picked up his third foul and was taken out as well. The Illini responded with a 6-0 run of their own, as Frazier and Finke each hit a three-pointer. Thankfully, Corey Sanders scored on a drive in traffic, but failed to convert the free throw. Illinois led 41-38 with over 15 minutes left in the game.
Illinois leads the Big Ten in turnover and steal rate in conference play, which was obvious in this game. Rutgers piled up another four turnovers in the first five minutes of the second half and Illinois extended their lead to 45-38. Senior walk-on and captain Jake Dadika had a moment in his last game at the RAC, driving in traffic and finishing the layup to cut the lead to five. With Geo Baker struggling in his return from sitting out with the flu, Dadika played more minutes than the freshman and handled the point guard duties admirably. It was great to see Jake have an opportunity to play and do well, as he has been a great example of how a walk-on can be very valuable. He finished with 4 points, 2 assists, and 0 turnovers.
Soon after, Illinois continued to pick up fouls and Rutgers was in the bonus with over 12 minutes left in the game. Trent Frazier also had three fouls and Illinois had their two best players on the bench. Momentum was on the side of the Scarlet Knights, but they couldn’t take advantage. Sanders had a chance from the line, but missed both, making him 2 of 8 at this point in the game. Freeman then fouled Aaron Jordan from behind the arc. It was his fourth foul and Jordan hit all three free throws, giving Illinois its largest lead of the game at 48-40.
On senior day, Williams wouldn’t let this team quit. After Illinois switched to a 2-3 zone, Mike hit a deep three-pointer and the found Corey Sanders in transition to make the score 48-45 Illinois midway through the second half. With the Illini back up 5 points, Sanders hit two free throws after struggling the entire game.
Leron Black finally hit a big shot and his three-pointer put Illinois up 53-47. Eugene Omoruyi played steady all day and scored a three-point play the hard way to cut the lead to three points. However, another Black three soon after put Illinois up 58-52 with 8:21 to play.
Mamadou Doucoure made his presence felt late in the game, as he had a monstrous dunk and then drew a foul from Black, which was his fourth and put him on the bench. It was a big play in the game and credit Doucoure, who has disappeared for much of the closing stretch of this season. His play was even more important with Candido Sa sitting out due to an injury suffered at practice. It was unfortunate the hard working Sa missed his last game at the RAC and hopefully he can play at the Garden in the conference tournament.
Doucoure made one of two from the free throw line and a Finke layup gave Illinois a 60-53 lead with under eight minutes to play. Finke was killing Rutgers inside and had a big day, finishing with a game high 19 points. Two free throws from Kipper Nichols and the lead was the largest it had been in the game at this point.
At 66-56 with 4:17 to play, Freeman made a terrible decision by fouling at the top of the key with 25 seconds left in the shot clock. It was his fifth and he left the floor at the RAC for the final time. He finished with 11 points on 3 of 4 shooting from the field and 5 of 6 from the line. He added 4 rebounds and Rutgers played their best when he was on the floor. His energy was great in this game but he made some costly mistakes in fouling and wasn’t on the court as much Pikiell needed him to be. Illinois led 68-56 and Rutgers hadn’t made a field goal in over four minutes. Hope was dead in Piscataway, for this day, anyway. Illinois won 75-62.
Williams wasn’t giving up and had a signature play late in the action, grabbing an offensive rebound and scoring near the rim among two defenders guarding him. This game was symbolic of his career, a player that left it all out on the court but the results of the team were never what he deserved. He finished with 10 points on 4 of 12 from the field and added 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal. His impact on the program during his career has been significant.
Sanders led Rutgers with 18 points on 6 on 11 shooting, as well as 6 rebounds and 4 assists. He was just 5 of 12 from the free throw line and committed 3 turnovers. Eugene Omoruyi was solid with 14 points on 4 of 6 shooting and grabbed 4 rebounds. He did struggle with 4 fouls and 3 turnovers. Issa Thiam looked lost coming off the bench and never got into a flow. He played just minutes and didn’t take a shot.
Rutgers shot 43% from the floor as as team, while Illinois was 47%. The Illini also shot 78% from the line (18-23), had a +3 rebounding margin and a +5 turnover margin. They dominated in 37-5 with points off the bench and 21-11 in points off of turnovers. Aaron Jordan backed Finke with 15 points and 5 boards, while Black had 14 points and Trent Frazier added nine.
It was a hard fought effort, but the result was poetic with how the season has gone. Rutgers finishes the regular season with an 13-18 record, one game worse than last year, and a repeat of 3-15 in Big Ten play, still a program high mark. The coaching staff will look to regroup and hopefully the players can take advantage of one last chance in this season. Rutgers heads to a familiar home away from home, as the Big Ten conference tournament begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Still, when Rutgers isn’t producing much of anything from three-point range, like they did today making just 3 of 14, they have little chance to win.
They will play Minnesota, the 11 seed, at approximately 8 p.m. On Wednesday in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Golden Gophers beat Rutgers handily in their first meeting in early December, but their team has not been the same due to losing two starters, one due to injury with Amir Coffey and the expulsion of Reggie Lynch. Although Rutgers may finished in last place again, I like the matchup against Minnesota a lot better than the prospect of playing the Illini for a third time and second straight game. Illinois won both games against Rutgers by a combined average of 22 points. Their quick guards and pack line defense have caused the Scarlet Knights fits. With Rutgers finishing 14th, the regular season closes with disappointment in a up and down second season for Steve Pikiell.