Rutgers withstood a strong push from Drexel (2-2) on Wednesday night, but clamped down defensively and were stellar from the free throw line. It was enough for a 62-57 victory that wouldn’t win any beauty contest, but helped the Scarlet Knights move to 3-0 on the young season so far.
Montez Mathis came out hot, scoring three baskets on layups or dunks in the first four minutes of the game to give Rutgers an early 8-2 lead.
The bench helped extend the lead to 14-4 with just over 12 minutes left in the opening frame, as Jacob Young assisted on a Shaq Carter bucket and also converted two free throws.
Drexel showed some fight and point guard Zach Walton spurred a 10-3 run a three-pointer and two assists to cut the lead 17-14 with just over 8 minutes remaining in the half. However, Ron Harper Jr. stepped up and scored seven points in a three minute stretch of play to push the Rutgers lead back to 10 points.
The Dragons clawed back and then some, finishing the last five plus minutes of the first half on a 15-4 run to lead 31-30 at the break. Both teams struggled from the floor, making just 36% of their shots. Drexel was bombs away from three-point range and was 5 of 15 for 33%, while Rutgers was just 2 of 7 for 29%. One encouraging development was the home team making all 8 free throws in the first half. The issue was Rutgers was losing the turnover battle, committing 7 and only taking away 4 from Drexel, who averaged 20 turnovers per game coming in. Points in the paint were even at 14 apiece and RU held a +3 rebounding margin.
Rutgers came out of the break with more energy and playing more up tempo, resulting in a 8-2 run that forced a Drexel timeout less than five minutes into the second half. The Dragons trailed 38-33, with Geo Baker stealing it and finding Montez Mathis for his third dunk in a 32 second spurt.
Drexel was mired in a 0-8 funk from the floor since the break. After a TV timeout, Drexel flashed a 2-3 zone, but the next Rutgers basket came off a Harper Jr. steal and Jacob Young layup to extend the run even further. On the next possession, Akwasi Yeboah drilled a three-pointer and to complete a 10-0 run, as the Scarlet Knights led 43-33 with 14 minutes left in the game. However, Drexel cut the lead to just 4 points despite making just 2 of 13 shots in the half, but RU missed four shots in a row.
Baker stepped up with a big make, his classic step back mid-range jumper, giving Rutgers a huge basket when they needed it. They led 45-39 at the midway point of the second half.
Soon after Drexel hit back to back three-pointers to tie the game at 47-47 with just under 8 minutes remaining. Jacob Young has been inconsistent in the early going of this season, but he is showing his worth with elite speed in transition and got to the line in a key spot to give Rutgers the lead again after making both free throws. They continued to struggle from the floor, going without a field goal for over five minutes.
Drexel drained its 8th three-pointer of the game to take back the lead at 50-49 and less than six minutes to play. Baker’s miss was tipped in by Myles Johnson and RU was back on top. The next possession, Baker found Yeboah who hit a circus shot falling to the ground, leading to a Drexel timeout and Rutgers leading 53-50 with four minutes to play.
With Rutgers leading 55-50 and about two minutes remaining, Myles Johnson came up with a big block on a three-pointer and Caleb McConnell, who made consecutive free throws after not having scored all night before that. The Scarlet Knights led 57-50 buoyed by a 8-0 run down the stretch. Drexel hit a three soon after to cut the score to 59-55 with 25 seconds to play. Baker had a huge dunk driving off his left hand to extend the lead to six and seal it. The final score from the RAC was 62-57.
Geo Baker is a true leader for this team and showed up in big spots. He hit a three-pointer on the first possession of the second half to set the tone. He made several big plays in the game, including that dunk at the end as well defensively, finishing with 11 points on 4 of 11 shooting, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. He was just 1 of 7 from three-point range, but his leadership was huge in the win.
Montez Mathis got Rutgers going early on and should have been more of a focal point in the second half, but played relatively well and produced a stat line of 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting and 4 rebounds. He did have 3 turnovers.
Ron Harper Jr. had team highs of 13 points and 8 rebounds, both team highs, as well as 2 steals and a block. He also should have been more involved offensively, not having taking a shot down the stretch, despite shooting 3 of 7 from the field, 2 of 5 from three-point range and 5 of 6 from the free throw line.
Akwasi Yeboah has been a steadying force all season so far and had some key moments in the second half, scoring all 11 points after the break. He shot 3 of 6 from behind the arc and had 3 rebounds. Myles Johnson helped in the frontcourt with 5 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks, playing solid defense on Drexel’s James Butler who only scored 6 points, 8 below his season average.
Most of the rest of the team didn’t have many big moments. Jacob Young had 8 points but struggled at times. McConnell had those two late free throws and 6 rebounds. Paul Mulcahy had a bad night, not scoring or dishing out an assist while grabbing 3 boards but looking out of sync overall.
When Rutgers could run and force havoc defensively, they dominated play, outscoring Drexel 26-2 in fast break points. The problem was they turned it over far too often and defending the perimeter, particularly from behind the arc, was a struggle. They had a -1 turnover margin, but did hold a 17-7 edge in points off of turnovers. Rutgers was +6 on the boards and held a 24-20 advantage with points in the paint. Another positive is this team is definitely a better passing one and they have shared the basketball reasonably well. But shooting is still a concern, as they made just 37% of its shots, including 27% from three-point range (6-22). However, they were excellent from the free throw line in a game they needed to be, making 20 of 25 for 80%.
Drexel shot only 32% from the floor and 33% from three-point range (10-30). Zach Walton led the Dragons with 11 points.
Up next, Rutgers heads to Toronto to play St. Bonaventure in the Naismith Classic on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET. This game was scheduled on the fateful day former team captain and leading scorer/rebounder Eugene Omoruyi announced he was transferring on instagram. Omoruyi is from just outside the city and it was scheduled to honor the senior, but instead Rutgers will head there without him. His void is obvious so far this season, as Rutgers lacks a consistent inside force, but hopefully can return home from the border with a better performance than they had tonight. A win is a win and Rutgers is 3-0 for the third time in the Pikiell era, but there is still a long way to go before this team has proven itself.