NEW YORK CITY - In a season defining three days, Rutgers won over the Big Ten media and brought the Garden to it’s feet countless times. Unfortunately, they fell just short against a tremendous Purdue team who kept making big shot after big shot tonight. The Scarlet Knights fought to the bitter end, but the clock finally struck midnight on the season. They fell in front of a spirited, pro Rutgers crowd, 82-75.
Rutgers held their own from the outset and established a pace they wanted to play. They surged to a 10-5 lead on Purdue after Issa Thiam knocked down a huge three from the corner. Soon after, Geo Baker hit one from behind the arc and the Garden was rocking as Rutgers led by 8. They were playing with swagger and controlling the game. It was impressive, but didn’t seem possible that they could continue to outplay the Boilermakers. Purdue started the game shooting 2 of 10 from the field. It wasn’t until Dakota Mathias hit a three at the 12 minute mark that the top ten team and heavy favorite started to respond. It started a 7-0 run that forced Steve Pikiell to call a timeout with Rutgers clinging to a one point lead midway through the opening frame.
A trademark of the Pikiell era has been Rutgers getting great looks on plays coming out of a timeout and this time Corey Sanders found Eugene Omoruyi under the rim for a big basket. A Sanders jumper and a Geo Baker layup in transition off of a steal forced a Purdue timeout. The 6-0 run from the Scarlet Knights gave them a 19-12 lead with less than 9 minutes to play in the first half. However, Purdue responded with back to back three-pointers and just like that it was a 1 point margin again.
Sensing a need to step up, Sanders took control with a jumper at the top of the key and then a layup off of a steal. Gritty stuff from the Rutgers star.
Purdue only has five losses all year for a reason and responded right away, as Vince Edwards hit his second shot from behind the arc and Rutgers was up 23-21 at the 6:23 mark. With Corey Sanders getting his second rest of the game, Mike Williams picked up the slack. Rutgers scored again off of an inbounds play underneath the rim and Williams made it two in a row with a baseline jumper. Purdue continued to keep pace, as both teams were making shots and the Boilermakers only trailed 29-27 at the under-4 timeout. A great sign for Rutgers though was that five players already had multiple baskets in the game. As much as they rely on Sanders, everyone was contributing in the opening frame.
With Rutgers leading by 1, Freeman made a great shot fake and drove the baseline for a monster dunk. Soon after, Geo Baker made his second from downtown and the Garden was rocking with Rutgers leading 36-30. Purdue’s Dakota Mathias answered on the other end, cutting the lead in half. After trading buckets, the Scarlet Knights went into the locker room with a stunning 38-35 lead over #8 Purdue. It was their most impressive half simply because of who they were doing it against. Every time the Boilermakers got close, Rutgers responded and extended the lead. They shot 59% from the floor in the opening frame, remaining hot from the night before against Indiana. They were +2 on the boards, held a +1 turnover margin and held a 16-3 advantage in bench points, thanks to a strong half from Geo Baker (12 points). The question was not longer whether Rutgers belonged in this game, but rather could they sustain this level of play to pull the gigantic upset that the scarlet faithful craved?
Like great teams do, Purdue came out in the second half in high gear. Dakota Mathias and Carsen Edwards each hit a three, forcing Pikiell to call a timeout less than two minutes after the break. Rutgers trailed by 3, the first time they relinquished the lead in the game. Unfortunately, the timeout didn’t cool off Purdue, as Carsen Edwards started to dominate the action. He hit another three at the top of the key, than drove and dished for Vince Edwards. Purdue started the half on a 11-0 run and led 46-38 just three minutes in. Purdue was 8 of 17 from behind the arc at this point in the contest. Finally, Rutgers responded with a Geo Baker three-pointer, his third of the game, as RU was 4 of 9 from three-point range.
It was a frustrating predicament, as Rutgers was outplaying Purdue, but the Boilermakers were making shots at a ridiculous rate. It was a critical juncture in the game, as Rutgers was in danger of falling too far behind after leading for most of the night. Three straight points on two separate possessions from Mamadou Doucoure cut the lead to 48-44 with 15 minutes remaining in the game. After Purdue pushed the lead to 7 points, things felt like they were slipping away.
Superman, aka Corey Sanders at this Big Ten Tournament, got the message and drove to the rim, drawing a foul and finishing an acrobatic play. He converted and Rutgers was within four, trailing 51-47. It was Corey’s first basket in over 13 minutes, as Purdue was doing their best to take him out of the game.
After a great finish off of an offensive rebound from Freeman in heavy traffic, Geo Baker continued to shine and hit his fourth shot of the game from behind the arc, cutting the lead to two. Purdue responded with a bucket on the other end, but senior captain Mike Williams, who tweaked his ankle early on in the game, made a big play. As he does, he made what seemed to be an improbable rebound in the paint and finished near the rim, causing the Rutgers faithful to explode. After the TV timeout, Williams converted and Purdue held a 56-55 lead with 11:38 to play. The Scarlet Knights refused to go away and you could feel their undying will in the air at the Garden. Rutgers was crashing the boards as one unit and were +8 at this point in the game.
The problem was Purdue kept making contested three’s, as Carsen Edwards drained his fourth of the night from the corner. Soon after and Rutgers trailing by 3, Geo Baker went strong to the rim and made the layup, picked up the foul and sank the free throw to tie the game at 62 with 8:25 remaining. The wiry guard was doing his best to prove the media and coaches wrong for leaving him off the All-Freshman team. Baker had 20 points and was matching shot for shot with Carsen Edwards. It was his coming out party on the Big Ten stage.
After baskets were traded on each end of the floor and the game tied, P.J. Thompson hit a three for Purdue. Sanders showed urgency and promptly drained a jumper from the top of the key to cut the lead to 1 with just over 6 minutes to play. However, Vince Edwards hit Purdue’s 13th three-pointer of the game and Carsen scored near the rim on the next possession. The Boilermakers led 74-67 with 4:30 remaining and Pikiell called a timeout.
With the game slipping away, Geo Baker continued to showcase the growth in his game, as he did his best Corey Sanders impression with a step back jumper to cut the lead to five points. A few possesions later, he made a tremendous pass to a cutting Deshawn Freeman in traffic, but he couldn’t finish. Even so, Purdue couldn;t take advantage and Baker knocked down another jumper to make it 76-73 with 2:30 remaining. Isaac Haas then dunked it on the other end, but Sanders answered again and the lead was back to three. The Garden was rocking in Rutgers favor, but Haas scored a second big basket for Purdue and the lead was five. During a timeout, the crowd was chanting “Let’s go Rutgers” and R-U, willing this team to keep fighting. It was a sight to see.
Sanders stepped up yet again and knocked down a jumper out of the timeout and Rutgers made it a one possession game. Haas missed the front end of the one on one and RU had a chance to tie it. After Geo missed a stepback jumper, Mike Williams found away in traffic to pull down the offensive rebound. He missed his shot attempt and no foul was called, as the refs let them play. After Purdue missed a shot on their next possession, Sanders grabbed the rebound and went to the line. He missed the front end and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards was fouled. He made both free throws and Purdue held a 80-75 lead with 29 seconds remaining. Sanders then drove and was called for the offensive foul, giving the ball back to the Boilermakers. Purdue put the final nail in the coffin and put Rutgers away, ending their season in a 82-75 loss.
Rutgers did a great job on the boards, as they held a +8 rebounding margin and +11 on the offensive glass. That led to an impressive 20-2 edge in second chance points. They also only committed 9 turnovers. It was one of the better played games that this team played all season. The difference in the game was the play of Carsen and Vince Edwards, who made shot after shot and both finished with 26 points apiece.
While Rutgers shot a solid 47% from the field, Purdue was an impressive 54%.
Geo Baker had a team high 25 points on 10 of 20 shooting, including 4 of 9 from three-point range. He added 4 rebounds. Corey Sanders had a third straight strong performance, scoring 23 points on 11 of 20 from the field. He added 4 assists and 4 rebounds. No other Rutgers players scored in double figures, a contributing factor in not having enough firepower to keep up with the hot shooting of Purdue. In their final games in a Rutgers uniform, Deshawn Freeman had 7 points and 4 rebounds, while Mike Williams had 7 points and a team high 8 rebounds. It was appropriate the over achieving Williams went out in his career with that type of night on the boards.
It was a valiant effort from this team, who had a season defining three days at the Garden in the Big Ten Tournament. They earned a ton of respect in knocking off Minnesota and Indiana, while going down in putting up a major fight against a very good Purdue team. The perception of this program was elevated quite a bit and gives Steve Pikiell a sizeable chip to sell on the recruiting trail this offseason. It’s bittersweet to see this team lose with such a great crowd at the Garden. However, this feels like the beginning of something special.