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Rutgers Battled #3 Purdue To Hard Fought 78-76 Loss

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Corey Sanders had a career night, scoring 31 points in best offensive effort of the season

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue entered today’s game at the RAC with the nation’s longest winning streak at 18 games and were undefeated in Big Ten play, sitting atop the standings at 11-0. They have certainly looked like a national title contender entering Saturday’s game at the RAC. However, the Boilermakers found themselves in a dogfight against Rutgers, escaping a raucous RAC by the final score of 78-76. After the Scarlet Knights lost by 31 points in the first meeting with Purdue this season, as well as losing by that same margin on Tuesday night at Illinois, the Scarlet Knights played with tremendous spirit and intensity in the close defeat.

After a focused start by Rutgers that had the game tied at 5 in the opening minutes, back to back turnovers and a wide open three by P.J. Thompson that put the home team down 12-5 behind a Purdue 7-0 run. The Scarlet Knights ended a three minute scoreless stretch with a layup in traffic by Corey Sanders, who was looking to bust out of a four game scoring slump. However, the Boilermakers were capitalizing on every Rutgers misstep and any inch of open space they found on the offensive end. A Matt Cline jumper just inside the three-point line extended the Purdue lead to 18-9 with 12:02 remaining in the opening frame, which triggered a timeout from Steve Pikiell. Despite four blocks early by the Scarlet Knight defense, Purdue was still shooting 50% at this point in the game and soon after led 23-13 at the midway point after another Sanders layup cut the lead to 10 points.

A key sequence was after a Matt Bullock basket cut the lead to 8, he then took a contested three on the next trip and fell, but no foul was called, with the referee staring at the ground. Purdue’s Nojel Eastern then went the distance for a layup and drew the foul, completing the three-point play and the Purdue lead was back to 11. The Boilermakers soon led 30-15 with seven minutes to play in the half before a Geo Baker three-pointer, followed by a steal and breakaway dunk by Sanders cut the lead to 10 and gave the home crowd something to cheer about.

The defense ratcheted up from there and Purdue fell into a three-plus minute stretch without a field goal, as Rutgers trailed 32-21 at the under-four timeout before the half. Of course, the Scarlet Knights sputtered offensively as well and fell into their own three minute scoreless stretch.

Baker kept Rutgers in it with an impressive hook layup over Big Ten leading shot blocker Matt Haarms to cut the lead to 34-23. On the next possession, Sanders created an open elbow jumper and knocked it down. At the half, Rutgers trailed 37-26 after Vincent Edwards made two free throws with just over a second left. The refs missed a walk by Isaac Haas, one of several missed calls in the opening frame. While both teams shot between 44%-45% in the first half, Purdue took advantage from the free throw line, making 9 of 11, while Rutgers was just 1 of 2 from the charity stripe. After Rutgers committed 6 turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the half, they had zero in the final 8 minutes of the opening frame. They also held a +1 edge on the boards and held Purdue to just 3 of 11 from three-point range. Also, Boilermaker star Isaac Haas was held to just 3 points and 1 rebound.

Rutgers came out of the break playing with purpose and cut the lead to 41-33 after a Sanders layup just two minutes into the second half. After a breakdown on defense allowed an easy basket from , Geo Baker made a contested, step back three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring. With the Purdue lead at just 7 points, Rutgers couldn’t take advantage of a Boilermaker turnover, as Freeman missed a three-point attempt and Mathias made his own on the next trip. However, they continued to battled and Corey Sanders stepped up in a big way.

He made a contested jumper, had a steal that led to a Freeman for a dunk and then after a timeout, Matt Bullock made a great outlet pass in transition and Sanders converted the layup, as well as drawing the foul.

After another timeout, he made his free throw and all of a sudden Purdue only led 46-43 with 15:11 remaining in the game, as Rutgers was on a 7-0 run. After Edwards made a layup to end that run, Deshawn Freeman stole the inbounds pass on the Rutgers end of the floor and dunked it home to cut the lead back to three points. The defense tightened up and Purdue was mired in another two-plus minute scoreless stretch. Shaq Doorson slammed home a Baker miss and the lead was cut to one point.

Purdue finally got help from Isaac Haas, as he dunked it on the next possession, swatted a shot from Candido Sa, and then Matt Cline hit another three to put the lead back to five points. However, Corey Sanders refused to let Rutgers fade away, as he hit his first three-pointer of the game, as the Scarlet Knights trailed 53-50 at the under-12 timeout with 10:32 to play. The RAC faithful were rocking and the home team refused to go away.

Deshawn Freeman continued to play with an extra hop in his step and finished a Sanders miss that put the score at 55-54 with 8:00 minutes to play. Unfortunately, Dakota Mathias continued to come through when Purdue needed it most, as he drained a deep three to bring the lead to four points. Freeman then had a great ball fake on the other end, but missed the layup and Vince Edwards finished to put the lead at 6 points with 6-plus minutes to play.

Sanders continued to put this team on his back, as he converted a layup and grabbed his 6th rebound on Purdue’s next possession. Vince Edwards scored again, as he and Mathias had tremendous performances for the Boilermakers. Soon after, Issa Thiam was called for an offensive foul, his fifth of the game, as he exited the contest with 4:04 remaining, as he finished with just 3 points on 1 of 2 shooting from the floor.

A Carsen Edwards jumper with 2:56 to play made it 66-56 Purdue and the dream of an upset started to slip away. Rutgers was mired in a three-plus minute scoreless stretch, that was broken by a pair of Matt Bullock free throws. Freeman then made his own pair on the next possession and Rutgers trailed 66-60 with just over two minutes remaining in the game. Sanders soon after hit a wild, contested deep three to cut the lead to three points. Unfortunately, Bullock made a critical mistake committing a foul on the play and PJ Thompson made it count with a pair of made free throws. Sanders made a late bucket but Purdue led 72-65 with 40 seconds to play.

Geo Baker made a huge three to cut the lead to four points and Rutgers continued to claw. After Carsen Edwards made one of two free throws, Sanders found Sa for a dunk and the score was 73-70 with 20 seconds remaining. After Vince Edwards made a pair from the line, Bullock grabbed an offensive rebound and scored the putback. However, Thompson made one of two from the charity stripe and then Sanders finished a layup to cut the lead to two points with four seconds to play. However, the Boilermakers barely survived, winning 78-76.

Purdue finished the game without a field goal in the final 2:56 of the contest. They were led Vincent Edwards, who had a team high 18 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. Dakota Mathias had 16 points, including 4 of 7 from three-point range. Carsen Edwards added 13 points, while PJ Thomspon had 12 points. Isaac Haas was held to just 7 points and 4 rebounds, as Doorson and Mamadou Doucoure were strong defensively.

Corey Sanders scored a season high 31 points on 13 of 27 shooting from the floor. He also grabbed 7 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and committed just 2 turnovers. After entering the game in a four game slump in which he shot just 26% from the field, Sanders responded in a big way and put Rutgers on his back for much of this game. He played smart and within himself on offense, giving the Scarlet Knights a weapon to keep up with the high scoring Boilermakers. It was a sight to see.

Geo Baker had a strong game as well, making 6 of 9 shots, including 3 of 4 from behind the arc, finishing with 16 points. Deshawn Freeman scored 14 points and had a team high 9 rebounds, as well as 2 blocks. Matt Bullock, who did not play in the first meeting against Purdue, added 6 points and 6 rebounds in 17 minutes of action. As a team, Rutgers shot 48% from the floor and were 6 of 12 from three-point range. They also made 8 of 10 free throws.

I know there is a contingent of Rutgers fans that are tired of hearing about moral victories. However, consider the following: Rutgers has a depleted bench without its top two contributors in Mike Williams and Eugene Omoruyi, both of whom are typically on the floor at the end of games; this team has no natural point guard; Purdue is bigger and far more talented; the officiating was highly questionable in this game and while I hesitate to ever bring that up, it was especially bad in this contest. The Boilermakers were 25 of 29 from the free throw line, shooting 19 more attempts than the home team.

Despite it all, Rutgers had the #3 team in college basketball, the only undefeated team in Big Ten play, and the squad with the longest winning streak in the country on the ropes in the final seconds to go in the game. This team played extremely hard, along with purpose and cohesion on both ends of the floor. Matt Bullock, who hadn’t played any meaningful minutes this season before Williams was injured, was on the court in the final minutes and was respectable. Purdue averaged 84 points per game coming in and 50.4% from the floor, as well as 43.2% from three-point range. Rutgers held the Boilermakers to 45% shooting overall, just 7 of 21 from behind the arc (33%) and 6 points below their season scoring average.

Perhaps the most amazing stat, Rutgers held a +12 rebounding edge over a much taller and deeper Purdue frontcourt. They also held a 10 point edge in points in the paint and 14-4 edge in second chance points. After committing 6 turnovers in the first 12 minutes of this game, Rutgers had just 5 turnovers in the final 28 minutes. They outscored Purdue 49 to 40 in the second half. Rutgers had scored just 51 points per game during their previous four losses and today's outburst came against the Big Ten's third best defensive team, per efficiency ratings.

If you want a measurement of progress, the last time Purdue visited the RAC two seasons ago, they won by 50 points. That team wasn’t nearly as good as this year’s squad and Rutgers battled them to the final buzzer without its best two bench players, utilizing two walk-on’s. There have been plenty of ups and downs this season, but to see Rutgers respond after their worst conference performance of the season with perhaps their best was extremely encouraging. Culture is the most important part of any rebuild and this effort was another brick laid on the foundation being built by head coach Steve Pikiell.

Rutgers (12-13; 2-10) now has a quick turnaround, as they host Indiana (12-11; 5-6) on Monday night at the RAC. The Hoosiers host #5 Michigan State on Saturday night first, so both teams will be on short rest for their contest. Hopefully, the Scarlet Knights can build off this impressive bounce back performance against the best team in the Big Ten and bring confidence into their matchup against Indiana. If they can play the type of defense they are capable of and can execute in a similar fashion offensively as they did tonight, they’ll certainly have a chance to beat the Hoosiers. After a discouraging start to the week in a blowout loss to Illinois, Rutgers showed a lot of fight and heart in a close loss to a great team to end it.

BOX SCORE

To watch Steve Pikiell’s postgame press conference and read Brian Fonseca’s take here. For Dave White’s four thoughts, click here.