NEW YORK CITY — It felt like the nightmare that was last season’s Big Ten Tournament second round matchup with Northwestern was replaying at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
The Scarlet Knights found themselves down 14 points early to Indiana, a deficit which looked manageable but felt insurmountable for those inside the building watching Rutgers start 1-for-11 from the field.
But something clicked for Rutgers as one made basket turned into two, a sequence which snowballed into nine straight baskets to close the first half. The Scarlet Knights, miraculously took the lead into the break and didn’t let it go the entire second half, defeating the Hoosiers 76-69 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
It was the first time Rutgers won two games in a single conference tournament since 1998.
Watch postgame reactions from the hero of the game Corey Sanders and the hometown kid Mike Williams below.
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. For people who just tuned in to Rutgers basketball tonight around the country, what do they say about your team?
COACH PIKIELL: I hope the last two years you saw a team that fights and competes. And you certainly saw that tonight against a program that I have tremendous respect for, and Coach Miller does an unbelievable job.
And they have very good players and tradition and all that. But they stayed the course, and it’s tough when you’re building a program, but like I said last night, I’m very confident in what we’re doing here. We’re doing it with great kids. These two guys had great chemistry today and great leadership. And we did something special I knew we could do. And it was nice to do it here at Madison Square Garden.
Q. The Big Ten purists per se were not happy that the tournament was moved to the Garden. Do you feel like playing on your home court you guys are sending a message to the conference?
COACH PIKIELL: I don’t worry about what other people think. It’s a great venue here, maybe the best venue in the world. People love New York. It’s great to spread the great word of what a great league it is with great coaches to the biggest media market in the world.
So this is great for the league. And I think a lot of people are learning how good and exciting basketball is played in this league and how many good, quality teams there are from 1 to 14. So I’m hoping they’re getting a great feel for that.
Q. Down 24-8, kind of seemed like deja vu from last year in the second round. Was there anything that you said to the team in the huddle or was there a moment where you felt like things just clicked and that’s when the turnaround started?
COACH PIKIELL: We brought our subs in, and I thought De really gave us terrific energy. Geo Baker, coming off the flu, had great minutes, too. I told the guys I believe in what we do, I believe in our defense, I believe in our players. We just have to stay the course. These games are not easy. Any of them you’re going to be up sometimes and down sometimes, go through scoring droughts, defensive droughts, just gotta continue to stay the course. They did tonight. I’m really proud. Once we got the lead we did a really good job of keeping it. And made our free throws down the stretch. And Corey was terrific again. I think he has something to prove here. And he’s a good, really good player, and I think this is a great venue for him to showcase that.
Q. What do you think the significance for your program is of these last two games?
COACH PIKIELL: Well, I mean, just steps in the building process. We have a lot of tremendous things going on at Rutgers, we really do. We just got a $15 million donation by the Rodkins to build a student academic center. We’re building a new practice facility.
It’s a great university with great people and great leadership. There’s a lot of good things happening at Rutgers. And I’m proud to be the coach and proud to play a little role in it. But the players are what make it special. Like, they could have left two years ago. They stayed the course. They believed in what we’re doing, and they’re getting rewarded for that now. And they’ve gotten better. Freshmen -- Issa has gotten better. Eugene Omoruyi has gotten better. The things that I told them we’re going to here we’re doing, and it’s going to be better and better days ahead for Rutgers University.
Q. Coach, every game your team won this year before yesterday was at home. How similar has this environment, the preparation for this been in comparison to playing at home? And why do your players thrive in that scenario?
COACH PIKIELL: I will tell you we played the toughest schedule in the Big Ten. So we played every good team in this league twice. Played a lot of good teams once. We’ve been through the wars and these guys have battled through it, on the road, home, neutral site. I think this is exciting to us because these are our fans and Rutgers Nation right down the road, but this is the world’s most famous arena, too. So we got off to that good start yesterday. Got it rolling a little bit today, and hopefully we’re going to play a great Purdue team -- tremendous respect, senior- laden, really good coach -- tomorrow. I’m excited we’ll get a chance to play again.
Q. You were probably the biggest underdog of all the Big Ten teams and probably the favorite now, favorite underdog.
COACH PIKIELL: Favorite. Just leave it at that.
Q. And you probably have the state of New Jersey and perhaps the city of New York behind you. What do you like your chances against Purdue and perhaps the tournament?
COACH PIKIELL: I’ll tell you, never get caught up in the numbers. I told our guys this is a new season a couple days ago. And there’s no number. Everyone’s the same. Just gotta keep winning. And been able to do that. And I hope we get all of New Jersey and all of New York really helping us out because I know our guys love playing in front of a lot of people. But those numbers next to your name don’t mean anything.
I used to be in a one-bid league where you could win 20 games in a row during the regular season, nobody cares. You’ve got to win the tournament. It’s a lot like what I’m used to for my whole career. You have to have a great weekend and we’ve had a couple of good days. So hopefully we can make it a great weekend.
For a recap of the action, read Aaron Breitman’s recap here.
For Aaron Breitman and Brian Fonseca’s break down of the game, click here.