NEW YORK CITY - On the first day of March, the Rutgers men’s basketball team brought madness to the world’s greatest arena at a time it was least expected. On a rainy night outside, the forecast turned bleak soon after the opening tip in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament for Rutgers. They fell behind Indiana by the score of 8-0 almost five minutes into the game. While a three-pointer from Issa Thiam ended the shutout, it didn’t prevent the Hoosiers from asserting complete control and the Scarlet Knights were in serious trouble. They trailed 17-3 less than eight minutes into the game, forcing Steve Pikiell to call his second timeout of the game already. They looked dead in the water and were on life support. However, the Steve Pikiell era has quickly been defined by a never say die attitude and his team executed that philosophy in a beautiful way, even when it seemed unlikely to happen on this night.
Even after Rutgers cut the score to 19-8 behind five straight points from Deshawn Freeman, they couldn’t sustain a sizeable run. Indiana delivered a dagger of a three from Collin Hartmann right before the shot clock expired after a strong defensive possession from the Scarlet Knights. On offense, Rutgers lacked ball movement and were easy to figure out in the halfcourt, as they were settling for tough shots early on most possessions.
After Rutgers fell behind 24-8 at the under-8 timeout, a repeat of last year’s second round blowout loss to Northwestern seemed inevitable. However, the Scarlet Knights showed they weren’t done just yet. Freeman continued to produce on the offensive end and the team forced Indiana into a four minute stretch without a field goal. Finally, Freeman received help, as Geo Baker hit a three-pointer and Corey Sanders scored his first basket of the game on a baseline drive. After another defensive stop, Freeman scored a contested runner. Baker and Sanders scored on transition baskets off of steals, including an emphatic dunk from Corey.
All of sudden Rutgers only trailed 26-23 with 3:07 left in the first half and Indiana coach Archie Miller called timeout. It was an impressive 15-2 in which Rutgers went 7 of 7 from the field after starting the game just 3 of 15.
A Shaq Doorson block and a Corey Sanders step back jumper cut the lead to 1. Indiana finally responded, as Freddie McSwain Jr. finished inside to stop the bleeding. However, Sanders was fully locked in at this point and knocked down a contested jumper, followed by a steal and then drew a foul. He made both free throws and the Garden was as loud as it had been the entire tournament so far. Rutgers had its first lead of the game at 29-28 with just over a minute left in the opening frame and headed to the locker room the score the same. All told, it was a 21-4 run in the final seven-plus minutes of the half, as Rutgers made 9 of 10 shots. Indiana committed 4 turnovers over the final five minutes and went scoreless the final two of the first half. Like a night out on College Avenue in New Brunswick, Rutgers was late to arrive in this game, but once they showed up, they put on a show.
The question was could Rutgers carry the momentum they surprisingly built at the end of the first half into the second? Eugene Omoruyi, who didn’t score in the opening frame, came out of the locker room on a mission. He made shots on two consecutive possessions with a steal on the other end in between. The Rutgers lead had grown to 33-28 less than three minutes into the second half. However, Indiana got off the mat a mini 5-0 run tied the game a minute later.
A big reason for Rutgers’ struggles all season was a lack of consistency from behind the arc and while freshman Geo Baker has had his moments, he has been mostly ineffective down the stretch this season. He had just three points the night before, but he stepped up tonight and made his second shot from behind the arc to give Rutgers back the lead. Freeman then did something he hasn’t done enough of this season. He shot faked on a potential three-point attempt and blew by his defender for a tremendous dunk through the heart of the Hoosier defense.
Sanders followed with a crafty runner soon after and Rutgers had reasserted control, leading 40-34 with just under 15 minutes remaining in the game.
The defense of the Scarlet Knights continued to be tremendous, as they forced Indiana into a turnover due to a backcourt violation. They were relentless ever since falling down by 16 points in the first half. Candido Sa, who had played little the past two games due to a minor shoulder injury, was huge tonight on the defensive end.
The other calling card for Rutgers has been rebounding and after getting outworked early on in this game on the glass, they came alive during the unexpected comeback. Mike Williams, who was quiet at this point in the game, scored his first basket of the night by pulling down a offensive rebound in traffic and finishing near the rim. He drew a foul in the process, but missed the free throw. Still, Indiana hadn’t scored a field goal in over four minutes and when Sanders made a fadeaway jumper with a hand in his face as the shot clock was expiring, it felt like Rutgers could do no wrong.
Instead, Geo Baker made a costly foul on the next Indiana possession on a three-point attempt by Aljami Durham, who calmly made all three and cut the lead to five points. However, as he had all night, Deshawn Freeman came up big again with another tough basket inside. Rutgers held a 28-14 edge with points in the paint at this juncture and the Hoosiers hadn’t scored a field goal in almost six minutes. This felt like fantasyland, to be honest.
Then reality hit the Rutgers offense, as they fell into a three minute scoreless stretch and after Sa committed an overly aggressive foul behind the arc, essentially running over Durham, the freshman guard hit all three attempts yet again. Indiana then tied it after the loose ball and the many crimson fans in attendance roared. However, Omoruyi stepped up again and completed a three-point play the hard way exactly when Rutgers needed it most. They led 49-46 at the under-8 timeout.
Indiana was struggling mightily from the field, but were 21 of 23 from the free throw line at the six-plus minute mark as Rutgers clung to a 51-50 lead. However, for a second consecutive night, Corey Sanders put the offense on his capable shoulders and he made a tough runner in traffic. On the next possesion, Rutgers had good ball movement and Freeman found Baker in the corner, who knocked down his third three-pointer of the game. R-U chants broke out again around the Garden and Rutgers led 56-50, as Indiana called a timeout with 5:11 to play.
Enough cannot be said about the heart and effort that this team displayed. It came shining through their defense, which was stifling and frustrated the Hoosiers more and more as the game wore on. And on offense, Rutgers played as smart and unselfishly as they have in some time. Sanders made a tremendous inbounds pass to Williams, who was fouled and converted both free throws to put the lead back at six with less than four minutes to play. With less than three minutes to play, Sanders, made yet another stepback, fadeaway jumper to push the lead to 8.
However, Newkirk answered with a huge three-pointer. Back and forth they went, as Omoruyi then delivered a big basket in traffic. On the other end, Robert Johnson, who torched Rutgers in their first meeting, made a three of his own. The score was 63-59 with less than two minutes to play. Out of a timeout, Pikiell predictably called Corey’s number but Indiana could not stop him. He made another difficult shot in traffic and then Baker found him on the break, as Sanders slammed it home and brought the Rutgers faithful to their feet. The Scarlet Knights led 67-59 with 58 seconds to play. Soon after, Sanders had yet another emphatic slam dunk that got the Rutgers faithful to roar!
Johnson hit another three for Indiana and with the lead just four, Baker stepped to the line for a one and one with 31 seconds remaining. He made both, coming up big in the clutch. Indiana continued to claw and scored a quick basket on the other end. Sanders was fouled and made one of two. After the Hoosiers cut the lead to just three points, Baker was fouled again with 15 seconds to go. He calmly knocked down both and Rutgers continued to make huge free throws down the stretch for a second straight night.
Corey Sanders showed flashes of brilliance for a second straight evening at the Garden, as he willed Rutgers to victory behind a game high 28 points and he added 3 assists. He is cementing his legacy as an all-time great on the biggest stage and is leading this program to relevancy in the Big Ten.
Senior captain Deshawn Freeman, who has had a disappointing last few games, was absolutely huge tonight. He carried Rutgers in the early going when no one else had an answer. Freeman was aggressive but under control the entire night and gave Rutgers a major weapon inside. He finished with 15 points on 7 of 12 from the field and grabbed a team high 8 rebounds.
Geo Baker was clutch throughout this game and finished with 15 points, including 3 of 5 from behind the arc. Eugene Omoruyi was tough on both ends of the floor and finished with a workmanlike 9 points and 6 boards.
Rutgers dominated inside, holding a 40-24 edge with points in the paint. It led to their best shooting night of the season, as they finished at 58% from the field. After starting the game a horrid 3 of 15 from the floor, they finished the game making an incredible 26 of 35 shots. It was surreal. Rutgers was also a clutch 14 of 18 from the line.
On the defensive end, Rutgers held Indiana to just 36% from the field and while the Hoosiers held a +2 rebounding margin, Rutgers swiped 8 steals.
For a second straight night, this team has brought true joy to Rutgers basketball fans everywhere. The manner in which they came from behind after trailing by 16 points made this victory all the more satisfying. That is came against a Big Ten blue blood, regardless of it being a rebuilding year for the Hoosiers, made it all the more significant. After a frustrating finish to the regular season that included several “what could have been” games, the past two days have been a major step forward for the program in Steve Pikiell’s second season. The Scarlet Knights have now equaled last seasons 15-18 season and own five wins over Big Ten teams, the most since joining the league for years ago. Rutgers will now play Purdue on Friday night at 9 p.m. in the Big Ten Quarterfinals. It’s not a dream, but rather, a true sign of real progress for this program. What a night it was.