NEW YORK CITY — After years at the bottom of the Big Ten totem poll, Rutgers has become accustomed to playing the underdog.
When it comes to the conference tournament, the Scarlet Knights don’t just embrace the role — they thrive in it.
A year after it became the first 14th seed to win a game at the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers repeated the feat against Minnesota Wednesday night, crushing the Golden Gophers 65-54 in a late-night matchup at Madison Square Garden.
Watch the Scarlet Knights leading scorers Corey Sanders and Mike Williams react from the winners locker room.
Head coach Steve Pikiell’s press conference could not be filmed due to Big Ten media restrictions, so in place of a video, included below is a transcript of his postgame reaction.
Q. Coach, today was a big win for you. But not only that, it showed the grit and toughness of your team. What did you learn about your team today, because it was a tough season?
COACH PIKIELL: You know what, during the build process, there’s a lot of tough times you have to go through. We played the hardest schedule in the Big Ten, first and foremost. You guys all love Kenpom. You said it. Not anybody else. We’ve got a lot of obstacles that we’ve gone through. We’ve had sickness. Injuries. These guys have fought through everything. And I’m real proud today. We really followed the game plan. We had to do a great job on Mason and Murphy, two of the best players in the league. And we did that. We were tough. We outrebounded them. That was the key to the game. And I’m real proud. These guys made huge plays. Mike makes that big out-of-bounds play where he gets an and one. And Corey made big shots all night. Everybody kind of chipped in. Seven rebounds for Issa. Eugene, seven. (Deshawn Freeman) gets 11 rebounds. These guys have fought. It’s not been easy, but it’s never easy when you’re building something. And you’ve got to go through these times to enjoy the good times. And it’s not easy. It’s the best league in the country with the best coaches. And as you saw tonight, some really, really good players, too. So we’re excited about having the opportunity to play again tomorrow and hope Rutgers Nation is there and cheering us on just like they did today.
Q. What do you guys need to do to beat Indiana after they beat you earlier in the season?
COACH PIKIELL: Here you go: Just won this game five minutes ago and you’re already on to the next one. Indiana is well-coached. Again, terrific. We’ll sit down and watch a few tapes. They have matchup problems. They play tremendously hard. They have matchup problems for us. We have a day. We have a lot of time to prepare. Our guys will sleep tonight. And then we’ll get ready for a good Indiana team tomorrow.
Q. Wanted to ask: How satisfying it is for you in terms of seeing Mike Williams, the kind of effort he put forth tonight, how he bought into your program when he came here two years ago, and just to see him have this type of effort in front of his hometown?
COACH PIKIELL: Just real excited. Put him in the lineup tonight. Knew he would respond. I didn’t even know if he was going to be back for the season. He and Eugene have had bad injuries. They both really came back and did a great job. But De, I thought -- our seniors all chipped in. Candido gave us some good minutes too when he was in there. Real happy. Mike’s been a great representative: Dean’s list student and graduating on time, he’s been great, a four-year guy here. To get another win in the tournament so he can keep playing, certainly a great thing.
Q. You played here as a player in the Big East Tournament. What was it like to coach here in the first --
COACH PIKIELL: I love Madison Square Garden. There’s no better place. There’s no better venue. I’m glad that people can see some unbelievable basketball tomorrow. There were great games today: Illinois, Iowa, that comes down to some really good and exciting basketball. And everyone will realize how good everyone is in this league from 1 to 14. Who is in the league, 1 to 14, don’t want to play anybody. You don’t want to play Illinois, Iowa or Minnesota. Good basketball teams, tremendous tradition, tremendous coaches. So it’s great to be here in this venue. I’ve always loved it. Loved it as a player, Big East, and every time I come here and play, it’s just great.
Q. Who was better, you against Boston College in 1986 or Corey Sanders tonight?
COACH PIKIELL: Did they play basketball back in that time? Peach basket? Corey Sanders by far. Better by far. And I was proud of him tonight. He showed a very good basketball player. And he made big plays. But I also liked his defense. He chased Nate Mason around all night. Not an easy thing.
Q. Along those lines about Corey, I know the next loss will be Mike’s final game, but it also could be Corey’s. Any concern about where the program might be without a kid like him, the way he played?
COACH PIKIELL: You know what, Corey’s been great. We’ll figure that out. And whatever is best for Corey is what it is. We’ve got to continue to grow the program no matter who leaves. We’re going to put this program in a good place where we have good players in every class. Very confident in what I’m doing. I’m very confident in the build that we have. Our athletic director is the best. And we’re building practice facilities. Everything else that we need, compete in the best league in the country. And feel really good about where we are. And I know everyone wants 20, 25 wins -- how it works.I’d like that, too. But gotta go through these tough times and we’ve gone through them but we’ve been in every game pretty much and these guys keep fighting. And we’re growing the program. Two freshmen today played a lot of minutes. A couple sophomores playing a lot of minutes. Couple of juniors. We don’t have a huge senior class, and we’ve got a great class coming in. We have two kids sitting out that I think are tremendous. So I feel really good about where we’re headed; and figure out next year who is going to be on that roster next year.
For Aaron Breitman’s recap of the game, click here.
To watch Aaron and Brian Fonseca break down the game, click here.