NEW YORK CITY - In the city that never sleeps, Rutgers earned the right to play tomorrow, as they dominated on the boards and did enough on the offensive end to outlast Minnesota 65-54 in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. In front of a spirited Rutgers crowd at Madison Square Garden, Corey Sanders led the way with another strong performance in scarlet.
It was an ugly start, as Rutgers missed its first three shots of the game. However, Minnesota missed its first six attempts from the field and star Jordan Murphy was called for an early offensive foul, as Eugene Omoruyi drew a charge against him. That sparked Rutgers, as Corey Sanders scored the first basket of the game on the next trip down the floor. The Scarlet Knights held a 4-0 lead at the under-16 timeout before Nate Mason hit two free throws after the break to get the Golden Gophers on the scoreboard. Murphy hit two more and the game was tied five minutes into the action.
Rutgers fell into a funk offensively and started just 2 of 10 from the field. However, after a missed three-pointer by Geo Baker, senior captain Deshawn Freeman grabbed the offensive rebound and made a beautiful touch pass to Mamadou Doucoure, who finished with an emphatic dunk.
Soon after, Freeman drew a foul on Murphy, who went to the bench with two early fouls just seven minutes into the game. This was a huge play in the first half, as Murphy didn’t return until right before the break and was held to just 2 points and 3 rebounds in the opening frame. Unfortunately, Freeman picked up his second foul on the next defensive possession and was sidelined as well, limiting him to just 4 minutes in the first half (3 points, 3 rebounds).
The Scarlet Knights needed a lift and another captain was there to give them just that. Brooklyn native Mike Williams hit a big three-pointer and Rutgers led 10-8 at the 11:39 mark of the first half. Minnesota was still without a field goal in the game (0-7), but were 8 of 10 from the free throw line. The Gophers finally broke through a runner from Dupree McBrayer to tie the game and Davonte Fitzgerald gave them a 13-10 lead with a three-pointer.
Offense continued to be an issue for both teams though and it was the rebounding of Rutgers that got them going in this contest. They began to dominate on the glass and it sparked a 10-2 run. However, Minnesota wasn’t going away and a Nate Mason runner tied it at 22 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half.
Corey Sanders started got on a roll and sparked a 12-5 Rutgers run to end the first half, as the Scarlet Knights headed into the locker room with a 34-27 lead. Sanders hit three jump shots and made two free throws during the run. He had 15 first half points on 6 of 11 shooting and grabbed 5 rebounds. Rutgers was dominant on the boards, holding an impressive 28-13 edge over Minnesota. The real difference was on the offensive glass, as the Scarlet Knights held a 9-2 edge and a 13-0 edge in second chance points. The bottom line is that Rutgers looked like the team that wanted it more and Corey Sanders was cooking with gas.
Corey Sanders is breaking ankles pic.twitter.com/SgqyGOMMD5— Big Ten Geek (@bigtengeek) March 1, 2018
After the break, Shaq Doorson continued to play well in a game that he got a rare start. He didn’t attempt a shot in the first half, but made two buckets, including a jaw dropping slam dunk that sent the Rutgers fans into a frenzy. Another key development was that Minnesota starting center, Kabary Konate, picked up three fouls in four minutes and went to the bench with four in the game. Rutgers led 39-34 at the under-16 timeout.
With both teams at a bit of a standstill, Geo Baker, who looked sluggish for a second straight game after recovering from the flu, made a huge three-pointer to give Rutgers it’s largest lead of the night at 8 points. Minnesota was mired in a three minute scoreless stretch before a Jordan Murphy dunk off of an offensive rebound made it 42-36. With the Gophers lurking, Mike Williams rebounded his own miss and finished the putback to give Rutgers a 7 point lead at the under-12 timeout.
Minnesota was able to cut the lead to 46-42 with 8:58 to play and Steve Pikiell called a timeout on the floor. The Gophers continued to struggle at times on the offensive end, but were shooting 50% (6 of 12) from the field in the second half at this point. Rutgers fell into a scoreless stretch of over two minutes and the game was at a tenuous point.
Enter Mike Williams, who completed a three-point play the hard way with a great roll in the paint on a play called out of a timeout. However, Nate Mason answered on the other end with a three-pointer. After Rutgers failed to convert on their next possesion, Jordan Murphy continued to make a difference in the second half and his dunk cut the lead to two.
As he had much of the first half, Sanders made a big shot, this time from behind the arc and the lead was back to five points with just over five minutes left in the game. However, Minnesota cut the score to 52-49 and the next couple of minutes was a stalemate, as the play became a helter skelter type pace. Both teams couldn’t convert and bodies were flying all over the court. Rutgers had the ball at the last TV timeout with 3:14 to play in the game.
The first possesion after the timeout, Eugene Omoruyi posted up Minnesota’s Michael Hurt and scored a big basket. He missed the free throw and on the other end, Murphy made one of two as Rutgers led 54-50. With 2:30 to play, Sanders missed a three-pointer and Mike Williams fought his way to a long offensive rebound in traffic. Pikiell called timeout and called an isolation play for Sanders, who promptly knocked down a mid-range jumper at the top of the key. Freeman grabbed rebounds on the next two Minnesota possessions. Deshawn then made both free throws to give Rutgers an 8 point lead with a minute to play. They made nine of ten from the line in the final minutes.
Corey Sanders was huge and led Rutgers with a game high 23 points, as well as 7 rebounds, 2 assists and zero turnovers. He came out with swagger and gave the Scarlet Knights the scoring punch they desperately needed. With two all-conference players on the floor for Minnesota in Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, Sanders outplayed them in this game.
Mike Williams also played a huge role in this game, willing Rutgers to stay in it at times and making key hustle plays down the stretch. He finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. His toughness and determination were a big reason Rutgers won this game.
Eugene Omoruyi added 9 points and 7 rebounds, while Shaq Doorson had 4 points and 4 rebounds in 17 valuable minutes. Deshawn Freeman came off the bench again and after a quiet first half, including being held without a field goal on the night, finished with a game high 11 rebounds and was 7 of 8 from the line. Issa Thiam added 5 points and 7 rebounds.
As a team, Rutgers dominated on the boards, holding a 49-28 advantage, the largest rebounding margin they’ve ever produced against Big Ten competition. They held a 15-5 edge on the offensive glass which resulted in a 17-2 edge in second chance points. Despite committing 13 turnovers and only shooting 39% from the field, Rutgers won this game on their bread and butter, defense and rebounding. Minnesota’s two start players, Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy, were held to just 23 points combined on 9 of 23 from the field.
Rutgers has now won the opening round game of the Big Ten Tournament two years in a row and both times as a 14 seed. They’ll play 6 seeded Indiana on Thursday night in the last game of the day at approximately 9 p.m. There were a lot of Rutgers fans in attendance tonight and they helped make it a great environment at the Garden. Time for round two, as the Scarlet Knights refuse to hear any bell ending their season just yet.