The Rutgers men’s basketball team was mired in a three game losing streak where they played poorly and needed a spark. Enter captain Eugene Omoruyi who returned just 12 days after dislocating his kneecap. He was clearly less than 100% but played 25 gutty minutes and with Rutgers trailing by 13 points in the first half, helped turn the game around. The win was keyed behind a strong second half performance as Rutgers shot 47% from the floor and outscored Nebraska 43-31 after the break. It was a great team victory as there were several spirited performances that led to the biggest win of the Pikiell era from a KenPom ranking perspective (Nebraska was 11th entering the game.)
First Half Summary
Rutgers played well defensively early on and Nebraska started 1 of 7 from the field but 4 turnovers sunk any chance to take control. The Cornhuskers adjusted and went on a 9-0 run to lead 10-4 at the first media timeout. However, the Scarlet Knights responded well with an 8-0 run of their own, despite being mired in a 1 of 8 shooting slump of their own.
Unfortunately, poor shot selection and sloppy play continued as Nebraska jumped out to a 23-16 lead behind an 11-2 run. Rutgers had committed 9 turnovers just 12 minutes into the game and started 5 of 18 from the field. Baker then turned it over as Glynn Watson Jr. stole it away after the media timeout and James Palmer Jr. slammed it home. It turned into a 19-4 run by Nebraska aided by 12 Rutgers turnovers in the first 15 minutes. Back to back three’s by Isaac Copeland Jr. and Watson Jr. put the Cornhuskers up 31-18 with 4:50 remaining in the first half.
Finally, Rutgers got their act together. Eugene Omoruyi converted on a three-point play the hard way to end the run and cut the lead to 31-21 with just over four minutes to play in the opening frame. The captain sparked a big run to close the half, as a Myles Johnson dunk, a Ron Harper Jr. three-pointer in transition against a three-quarter court press, and a Mathis three-point play on drive and foul cut the lead to 31-29 with two-plus minutes to play before halftimes. The passing during this stretch was excellent and a Shaq Carter basket off a bounce pass from Johnson followed by Mathis a drive and for a lay-up completed an extremely impressive 15-0 run to give them a 33-31 lead.
Nebraska was able to close out the half on a 7-0 run including a 25-plus foot three-pointer at the buzzer from Watson Jr. Rutgers trailed 38-33 at the break. The Cornhuskers shot 47% from the field and made 5 of 9 shots from three-point range. Rutgers was +4 on the boards, 7 of 7 from the free throw line and held a 20-14 edge with points in the paint. However, 13 first half turnovers was an absolute killer and the reason they were trailing. Nebraska also held a 11-2 edge in fast break points.
Second Half Summary
After the break Nebraska was leading 39-35 when Baker made a big mistake leaving his feet and fouling Watson Jr. on a three-pointer. He made it and converted the free throw to push the lead to 8 points. Baker responded by scoring back to back baskets, a three-pointer and a crafty layup to cut the lead to 43-40 less than three minutes into the second half. On the next offensive possession, Pikiell called Mathis’ number, who promptly drove from the top of the key and scored on a lay-in, drew the foul and converted the free throw to tie the game and complete an 8-0 run. Rutgers was also 8 for 8 from the line at this juncture in the game.
The Scarlet Knights then fell into a three minute scoring drought and Ron Harper Jr. picked up his fourth foul. Still, Rutgers only trailed 47-45 and Baker tied it up with just over 12 minutes to play on a strong drive and finish at the rim. He followed that up with a three from the corner to take the lead and force a Nebraska timeout.
It was back and forth from there and Rutgers led 58-53 with 8 minutes to play behind a interior basket and two free throws from Mathis. Nebraska cut it to 59-56 before Peter Kiss hit a huge three-pointer with about six minutes to play.
Rutgers led 66-59 after back to back baskets from Myles Johnson, but Nebraska’s Watson Jr. knocked down a big three-pointer to cut the lead to four with four minutes remaining in the game. After Baker made one of two free throws, a mad scramble on a loose ball on Nebraska’s next possession resulted in a wide open James Palmer Jr. three-pointer to cut the lead to 67-65 with 2:48 left in the game. Pikiell wisely called a timeout. Nebraska had hit three shots in a row and Palmer Jr. soon headed to the line to tie it with 2:02 to play.
On the Rutgers possession with it tied, Omoruyi posted up, missed the shot, grabbed the rebound and found Myles Johnson. He laid it in, was fouled, but missed the free throw. Still, it was a big play and Peter Kiss was fouled after a James Palmer miss on the following possession. He made both free throws to push the lead to 71-67 with 1:22 to play.
Nebraska missed a three on the next possession and Johnson was fouled on the rebound. He made one of two from the line to push the lead to five points. He then had a huge block shot on a Copeland drive and the RAC was rocking. Copeland then missed a jumper and Mathis was fouled on a rebound. He was 4 of 4 at this point from the line but missed both. However, on the next possession Johnson dunked it to give Rutgers a 74-67 lead. After a bit more action, they won by 7 points.
The Game Changed When
With Rutgers trailing 31-18 and the game slipping away, Omoruyi sparked his teammates with his first field goal in his return and it led to a game changing 15-0 run. Rutgers lost the lead before the half, but it was amazing they only trailed 5 after as sloppy they played for most of the opening frame. Then trailing 43-35 soon after the break, Rutgers responded with an 8-0 run and showed they weren’t going away.
It Was Over When
Mathis made two of four free throws in the closing seconds to push it to a 76-67 lead with 18 seconds to play to clinch the victory!
For Nebraska, the big three of James Palmer Jr, Isaac Copeland Jr., and Glynn Watson Jr. combined for 52 points but were just 18 of 43 from the field for 41.8%.
There were several great performances from Rutgers. Montez Mathis continued his strong play by leading the way with 20 points and 9 rebounds. Geo Baker made several big shots down the stretch and finished with 16 points including 3 of 4 from three-point range and 3 steals. Myles Johnson played his best game in a Rutgers uniform, scoring 13 points, as well as 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocked shots. Eugene Omoruyi gutted out 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists. Peter Kiss stepped up as well, hitting a big three late and going 5 of 5 from the line to give 8 important points in this game.
On the glass, Rutgers dominated holding a +10 rebounding margin and +5 on the offensive boards. It led to a 17-7 advantage with second chance points. Overall, Rutgers controlled the paint by outscoring Nebraska 42-24.
After turning it over 13 times in the first half, Rutgers committed just 2 second half turnovers and ended up holding a 19-13 edge in points off of turnovers in the game.
The bench was huge for Rutgers and outscored Nebraska 31-6.
Rutgers shot 44% for the game while holding Nebraska to just 42%. The Scarlet Knights started 11 of 13 from the free throw line but finished 17 of 26 for 65%. However, it was good enough and Nebraska who came in shooting 73% from the line made just 10 of 18 for 56% tonight.
What We Learned
When Rutgers doesn’t turn the basketball over and attacks the basket, they can give good teams trouble and in fact, beat them. It came against a veteran team with three very good seniors as well. After a terribly sloppy start, Rutgers calmed down and played with purpose. The passing at times in the second half was the best we’ve seen during the Pikiell era so far. Omoruyi’s presence on the floor cannot be understated and he is clearly the MVP of this team. However, a lot of players stepped up and delivered big plays when this team needed it most. The development of Mathis and Johnson is encouraging. The defense was finally where it needed to be to compete against a Big Ten opponent, as they held Nebraska to 9 points under its season average. The game was a microcosm of the entire season and was a roller coaster. The fact is this team is unpredictable but when they play smart and together, they are tough to beat at home and are showing signs that this core group of players can become a winning team down the road.
Rutgers heads on the road to Happy Valley to take on Penn State on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET. The Nittany Lions are in last place and winless in conference play. It’s also the only place Rutgers has won a road game in the Big Ten since joining the league five seasons ago, as they are just 1-38 all-time. At 9-9 overall and 2-6 in Big Ten play, Rutgers will head to Penn State with a world of confidence and its leader back on the floor.
For Dave White’s four thoughts, click here.