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Resilient Rutgers Overcomes Adversity In Gutsy Performance Against No. 3 Purdue

Despite everything going against them, the Scarlet Knights nearly pulled off their greatest ever upset

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

PISCATAWAY — So many things were going against Rutgers over the past week.

The Scarlet Knights lost Eugene Omoruyi for the foreseeable future thanks to a knee injury sustained against Illinois, less than a month after an ankle injury kept captain and fellow glue guy Mike Williams off the court for a similar stretch. That same night, the Scarlet Knights ended up on the wrong side of a 31-point loss to the Illini, their fourth straight loss.

Despite everything going the wrong way, head coach Steve Pikiell remained as positive as ever.

“With great adversity comes great opportunity,” he said before Thursday’s practice.

In front of a sold-out RAC crowd of 8,325, Rutgers struck fear in No. 3 Purdue and caught eyes across the nation upon the tight second-half score ringing around Twitter. With eight minutes to play, the Scarlet Knights trailed by a single point and had the national title contenders on the ropes.

Rutgers did everything it could to pull off the upset. It shot 48 percent from the floor, dominated the boards (+12), hit their free throws (8-for-10), saw their guards combine for 47 points and held the 17th ranked offense in the country six points below their season average.

But even a perfect game wasn’t enough for the depleted Scarlet Knights, who saw one last thing go array to close the week as they came up just short in a 78-76 heart-wrencher.

The Scarlet Knights started off as well as it could hope to. Through three defensive possessions, the Scarlet Knights had three blocks and were tied with the Boilermakers at three a piece. The packed student section was loud, overshadowing the impressively large traveling contingent for the visitors.

After Purdue pulled away in the first half, Rutgers countered with a blitz out of halftime. A 19-10 run out of the gate cut Purdue’s lead to a single point. For the second time this season, the Scarlet Knights had a top-five team on the ropes — and this time they had their home fans behind them.

But as the clock wound down, the defensive masterclass from Deshawn Freeman, Corey Sanders and the rest of Rutgers waned as the heavy minute load weighed on their legs. It gave the Boilermakers an extra inch they didn’t have all night. For a team as talented as the Boilermakers, an inch is all they need. Purdue went on an 11-2 run to give itself a 10 point cushion with 3 minutes to play, which ended up being just enough to survive.

And so, for the 19th time, Purdue finished on the winning end. But not before overcoming the punches of a hungry Rutgers team.

“You can’t ask for a better fight than that against one of those type of teams,” Sanders said. “We played our tails off. I think everyone’s in good spirits, but we just to got to stay focused and know we can get better.”

Fonseca’s Five:

1) Corey Sanders Did Everything He Possibly Could

Like Rutgers, Corey Sanders was not having a great week. After he was held scoreless for the first time in his college career in a loss at Penn State, Sanders had a mediocre 10 points on 3-for-12 shooting in a blowout loss to Illinois. Like his team, Sanders was looking for a bounce back game.

“I’ve had a rough last four games so I just really been trying to get back to playing basketball,” he said.

Boy, did he bounce back.

Sanders played like a man possessed, scoring a game-high 31 points on 48 percent shooting (13-for-27) with seven rebounds and three assists. He hit big shot after big shot down the stretch, and when Purdue keyed in on him, he found Candido Sa wide-open in the lane for a key dunk.

“Today I had some shots fall which is very satisfying for me,” Sanders said. “It would’ve been even better if we got the win. I just try to stay aggressive.”

Sanders found success thanks to a smart game plan from Pikiell. The head coach used a large number of ball screens to match Sanders up with Purdue’s tall but slow centers, matchups Sanders ate up and took advantage of with numerous drives to the rim. From those shots came confidence, leading directly to him hitting some tough midrange shots throughout the game.

“I just felt like I was getting some shots that I wanted,” Sanders said. “Coach really stressed the ball screen today so I felt like using ball screens, I was able to attack and get some easy shots. I got some easy lay-ups to get me going and my jump shot started to fall so just staying aggressive.”

Despite playing 39 minutes, Sanders remained energetic on the defensive end, sticking to PJ Thompson like glue throughout the entire contest and holding him to 12 points, most of which came from the free throw line.

Those minutes may weigh on his legs soon enough as the Scarlet Knights hosts Indiana in two days. For Sanders, the game can’t come soon enough.“I love it,” Sanders said of the turnaround. “I love to play, so a day off and back at it, I love it. That’s what I look forward to. I don’t like days off like that. I like to play … this is what I want to do. This is what I live for.”

2) Foul Discrepancy Is Noticeable

Missing free throws in key situations was an issue that plagued Rutgers all of last season and at times this season. As of late, the issue has turned to not getting the chances from the charity stripe in the first place.

The Scarlet Knights shot just 10 free throws all night, well short of the 29 opportunities the Boilermakers got from the line. Take out the 14 free throws Purdue shot in the final two minutes and the visitors still had five more than Rutgers did all game.

It’s not the first time the Scarlet Knights were severely beaten in the free throw margin. In another near upset over a top-5 team earlier in the season, Rutgers was outshot from the line 34-15 in East Lansing by No. 4 Michigan State.

Pikiell has hinted about Rutgers needing a break or two throughout the past couple of weeks and Saturday was another example that adds fuel to the fire.

The pattern caught the eye of the Scarlet Knights on the floor as well.“Sometimes, man, you look up there and you’re like ‘wow,’” Sanders said. “I didn’t know it was that bad until I looked at (the box score). But it’s part of the game. It’s been like that all year. That’s something we got to fight through. When adversity hits, we got to find another way to win.”

There’s not much Rutgers can do about it — Pikiell’s been riding the referees a lot harder than usual recently already — so they’ll just keep fighting through.

“I’ve been here three years, man, and it’s just hard because a lot of games come down to the free throw line for us,” Sanders said. “We won’t say much about it but you constantly go in after the game and you look, it’s kind of frustrating. But we’re just going to play our ball and let the refs do what they do and try to win basketball games.”

3) Matt Bullock, But What Could’ve Been Looms Large

Matt Bullock played perhaps the best game of his career against the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. The redshirt freshman scored six points, got six rebounds and dished an assist, stepping up to fill the void left by the injured Eugene Omoruyi.

As valiant an effort as it was, Bullock is no Omoruyi.

As has been the case for the past few weeks, the absence of its glue guys was felt for Rutgers. Playing for the first time since Omoruyi picked up a knee injury against Illinois, the Scarlet Knights held its own, but it’s tempting to think if his presence would’ve allowed Rutgers to get over the hump when it kept the game close but wasn’t able to take the lead.

Of course, this is hypothetical and we’ll never know what would’ve happened. Maybe Omoruyi doesn’t snag the key rebounds Bullock did. But having his body around when Issa Thiam and Deshawn Freeman fouled out would’ve been quite helpful.

Nonetheless, Rutgers is stuck without Omoruyi for the foreseeable future. Bullock stepping up in his place against the toughtest team the Scarlet Knights will face for the rest of the season bodes well for their confidence.

“He’s a player,” Sanders said of Bullock. “He has some game. As long as he keeps himself prepared, keeps working, he’ll be a great piece for us, especially with these missing people.”

Shaquille Doorson added some spark off the bench in his own right, providing a pair of plays that made the crowd pop off in a monster block and a flying putback dunk.

4) The Best And Worst Of Deshawn Freeman

The Rutgers captain had one of the greatest defensive performances of his entire career on Saturday. Before fouling out late in the second half, Freeman flew across the court throughout the entirety of his 28 minutes on the floor. He draped Vincent Edwards everywhere he went, helped on Haas and around the perimeter and moved with incredible energy which was infectious throughout the team.

As good as his defense was, his offense left some to be desired.

He started off well enough, hitting six of his first 10 attempts from the floor, half of which coming during Rutgers early second half comeback, but it crumbled down the stretch. Freeman was selfish at times with some questionable hero ball decisions.

The best example came when he beat his man and drove to the basket. A Purdue big came over to provide help and left Shaquille Doorson wide open. Rather than look for his teammate with a pass, Freeman attempted a circus lay-up which was missed.

It may seem nitpicky, and this may feel like Freeman is being asked to play perfectly, but the senior has had a tendency to take matters into his own hands on the offensive side of the ball. With little weapons at their disposal, the Scarlet Knights certainly need their best scorers to take over — much like Sanders did today — but when there is a better option available, it should be taken.

5) Purdue Is So Good

The loss was as crushing as it could get for Rutgers fans, but the consolation prize was being able to watch one of the best teams in the country operate in all of its glory.

The Boilermakers are good — Final Four or bust good. It’s difficult to find a flaw in their roster. Isaac Haas is one of the best big men in the country, and his back-up Matt Haarms would start at most of the teams in the Big Ten. Try to contain either of them and they have the touch to dish it out to any of their four starters who average 40 percent or better from beyond the arc. Tire out the starters and back-ups like Ryan Cline will check in and hit an open three without breaking a sweat.

When Rutgers had the Boilermakers on the ropes, one of their senior leaders was there to make a key bucket to cut the run short.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that matched up well against Purdue. The Boilermakers will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will likely be playing in April. So while it stings to see the Scarlet Knights get destroyed at home, Rutgers fans can take comfort in knowing it was against one of the best teams in the past five years of college basketball.


Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell:

Opening statement: “As always I appreciate you coming. What a great environment. Seven decades of alums here today. Rutgers nation was loud and proud and I’m very thankful for that. We always play better when they’re here. The students, the band and the Riot Squad, the cheerleaders and all that. It’s an awesome environment, we played a great team. I mean they have a 20-game win streak. I thought we played really well, I thought we followed the game plan. These two guys, I couldn’t take them out of the game. That’s where we are right now. It was a tough day, we couldn’t finish it off. We had to play A+ basketball, and they make you pay for every mistake. Great environment though, I’m very thankful for everyone showing up and making this place a great place to play today.”

On what this effort tells him about the team: “We’ve hit a lot of obstacles and they keep fighting. Guys stepped up today that haven’t played a lot. When you’re building a program you have to go through a lot of stuff. I think that’s the best team in the country. I don’t know what they’re rated, but if there’s a better team inside and out in the country, then I haven’t seen them yet. We can play with anybody when we play like that and we follow the game plan and execute. These guys have both played really well. It makes us really much tougher to play.”

On Purdue’s nationally ranked shooters and its foul shooting: “We tried to really do a good job with the threes, and I thought we did. We did a good job on taking away [Isaac] Haas, and he’s as dominant of a post-guy as there is in the league. You can’t defend the foul line, it’s a tough place to defend. They got to the line a lot, and I wish we got there a little bit more ourselves.”

On equaling Purdue’s bench production despite losing players to injury: “Everyone needed to step up, and obviously I thought these guys played great. I thought Deshawn gave us some good minutes too. So they stepped their games up and everyone came off the bench- Shaq gave us some good minutes, Candido gave us good minutes, and Matt. Everyone has to chip in and do their thing. Especially being down two of our most versatile guys. They play a lot of positions for us, so we don’t have that versatility coming off our bench. Those guys have to come in for certain positions and do a good job, and they did do that today and they were ready when we called on them.”

On what he tells the guys in the locker room after being down by 11 at the half: “I liked the way the first half went. We didn’t end the half the way I would like to, but I thought we were getting shots we wanted to. I thought we could move the ball side to side a little bit more, make them play defense. I liked our defensive intensity. You just got to stay the course when you’re playing a really good team like this. Our defense helped us hang around, and then we went on some scoring spurts ourselves. So at halftime, I liked their effort and I liked what we were doing on the floor. Just a few things we could tweak and make sure we do a little better on. I thought we came out with good intensity in the second half right off the bat with scoring.”

On what Matt Bullock has shown him: “Matt’s been called upon to do some stuff now. Everyone has to, so he showed some signs of being good, and then he showed signs of not being ready. We need everybody on board, and hopefully he’ll continue to grow with some game minutes. We need everybody until those guys get back.”

On the bench players turning adversity into opportunity: “Everyone needed to step up their game. We’re down to eight scholarship guys. And by the way, we’re playing the best team in the country with four seniors who shoot the ball at the highest level, and the best post-tandem in the league. We had to really step it up and I thought we did, and the game came up short. Certainly not because the guys didn’t step up the way we needed them to.”

On the underperforming vs. Illinois and playing well vs. Purdue: “It’s part of a building process. If we did it every night we would be called Golden State Warriors. We’re not that yet. We’re a program that is growing, we’re a program that’s young, we’re a program that’s hit a lot of adversity. We’re fighting through it, and every game is a different obstacle. Illinois plays completely differently from Purdue. Now we’re going to play Indiana who plays completely different with one day to prepare. A lot of obstacles being thrown at us. Geo’s going through this for the first time, Duke (Doucoure) is going through it for the first time. You’ve got to live it, and you’ve got to learn from it. I do believe the second go-around, we’ll learn from how we played the first time, and I thought we really had some huge strides in that. I think sometimes when you play a team for the first time with new coaches you don’t really know how they’re going to play you. Everyone has a different strategy for us. I’d like going for round two with some of these teams, so we can make some of our own adjustments. I thought we did a good job going from our last game to this game, making the adjustments that we needed, and following the game plan.”

On what they can do about the free throw discrepancy (29 to 10): “There’s nothing. Try to do a great job of defending without fouling that’s what you try to do. And we obviously didn’t do that.”

Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter:

On Rutgers’ strong offensive second half: “I thought Rutgers was really good in the second half. We had a sluggish start after having an 11-point lead. I think each game is different with different talent on each team. Obviously, it was they had a great environment today, but we messed up some basic stuff at the start of the second half. We missed a layup and threw the ball out of bounds. We had a tough start, but with that being said they made tough shots. Corey Sanders, Geo Baker, those guys had a really good game. They made a lot of tough one-on-one plays. That is what we want to be frank with you. We want tough one-on-one contested, pull-up jump shots. They made a lot of them tonight, so you have to give them credit.”

On Corey Sanders: “He’s a guy that is very streaky. He can really get it going and carry his team. It is just one of those things that you tip your hat to him. He is a good player. And he was trying to help his team along with Geo Baker. They had a tough loss the other day and that is what I told the guys, ‘they beat Seton Hall here, they’ve had a sell out before. These guys have pride. They had a bad game last game and they are going to bounce back, fight and compete.’ I thought physically they took it to us at times. They were very physical and obviously rebounding. I was very impressed with them.”