After a disappointing debut to the 2019-2020 season on Thursday night in escaping Bryant at the buzzer, the Rutgers men’s basketball team looked much sharper on Sunday on both ends of the floor. The Scarlet Knights opened the game on a 16-2 run and never looked back, routing Niagara in front of the RAC faithful.
Caleb McConnell and Geo Baker made the first two three-point attempts of the game, while Rutgers did a much better job of sharing the basketball and making better decisions offensively. They played more under control, especially in transition, as shown in this highlight of Ron Harper Jr. finishing with an alley-oop dunk.
Once the lead ballooned to 26-6 with 8:45 to play in the first half it was clear this team was on a mission to erase doubts of their potential after the shaky season opener. Team defense was much better and they contested almost every shot in the game.
Rutgers led 39-13 at the half on 57% shooting, including 5 of 11 for 45% from three-point range. Most impressive, they dished out 11 assists on 17 first half field goals. RU was +7 on the boards, held a 15-2 advantage in fast break points and held a 12-0 edge on points off of turnovers. The defense held Niagara to just 22% shooting in the opening frame. The Scarlet Knights had a balanced scoring attack, with McConnell, Montez Mathis, and Akwasi Yeboah all tied with a team high 7 points.
After the break, it was more of the same as Rutgers never took its foot off the gas. While Niagara held up a bit in the first six minutes after the half, with Rutgers only holding a 13-9 second half scoring edge, the Scarlet Knights poured it on with a 19-6 run to push the lead to 43 points with just over seven minutes left in the game.
Captain Geo Baker is the unquestioned leader of this team and dominated the action, particularly in the second half as a sign he had no intentions of this one ever getting close. He led Rutgers with 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 3 of 5 from three-point range, as well as 4 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks. Baker was doing it on both ends of the floor, shown on this first half play with a blocked shot followed by a beautiful assist to Jacob Young on the break. He also later drew a charge for the second straight game.
Yeboah continues to be a steady force off the bench and finished with 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting, including 2 of 3 from three-point range. He added 6 rebounds and 2 assists in just 17 minutes of action.
Harper Jr. responded well after struggling in the season opener, finishing with 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting, as well as a team high 8 rebounds.
Overall, Rutgers had six players score 8 or more points in a balanced scoring effort. McConnell had 9 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 2 assists, while Mathis had 8 points on 3 of 9 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists. Young played much better after a poor debut, finishing with 8 points on 3 of 7 shooting and 4 assists.
Paul Mulcahy led Rutgers with 6 assists and zero turnovers, while scoring 4 points on 2 of 3 shooting and grabbing 3 rebounds. Myles Johnson was perfect from the field for 6 points (3-3) and pulled down 6 rebounds.
As a team, Rutgers shot 59% while holding Niagara to just 31%. In addition, they made 9 of 19 shots from three-point range for 47% and were an impressive 7 of 8 (88%) from the free throw line. They held a +16 rebounding margin and +8 turnover margin, only giving it away 9 times. It resulted in a 26-2 edge in points off of turnovers and they had a 25-2 advantage in fast break points. For proof that they shared the basketball better, which led to a very good shooting performance, was the fact they dished out 22 assists on 35 field goals.
It’s important to approach this season as a marathon and not a sprint. Nebraska is 0-2 with losses to UC Riverside and Southern Utah, while Northwestern lost to Merrimack in its season opener. This is college basketball and anything can happen. Nicholls State took Illinois to overtime in the season opener and then beat another future Rutgers opponent, Pitt, on the road on Saturday, just a game after the Panthers knocked off Florida State. The point being, while Rutgers was fortunate to win in the season opener due to its poor play, surviving that performance was key in this team’s development. They responded positively in this victory and hopefully learned they can’t take any game and opponent for granted. At 2-0, Rutgers has stayed on course in the early going and needs to keep improving each game. Up Next, Rutgers hosts Drexel on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. ET at the RAC.