After suffering its first loss of the season last weekend against St. Bonaventure in Toronto, the Rutgers men’s basketball team returned to home to the RAC with the hope of getting back on track. They faced Stephen F. Austin, who came to Piscataway with a 4-0 record and averaging 88 points per game, as well as leading the country in opponent turnovers per game and defensive turnover rate. Although SFA never fell too far away for the game to be put away, Rutgers jumped out to a double digit lead in the first half and held it for most of the night. Behind smarter offense and solid defense, Rutgers lead the entire way and improved to 4-1 on the season with a 69-57 victory.
Rutgers came out shooting, as Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr. each made a three-pointer on the first two possessions of the game. A Montez Mathis jumper soon after helped push the lead to 8-0 just over two minutes into the contest. SFA started doing their thing defensively, forcing RU into several turnovers and helped limit scoring opportunities to stay in it early. However, McConnell and Harper Jr. each connected from deep once again and the Scarlet Knights led 15-5 at the 12:38 mark of the first half.
There was even a Shaq Carter sighting, a player Rutgers really needs to be more involved, as Geo Baker threw a beautiful alley-oop for the dunk.
Jacob Young soon after scored on a layup as the lead ballooned to 24-10 with Rutgers shooting 53% from the floor with over six minutes remaining in the opening frame. However, SFA was able to generate more turnovers and ended the first half on a 16-7 run. The visitors got to the free throw line and took advantage, as well as making 3 of its final 5 shots of the half to cut the Rutgers lead to 31-26 at the half.
RU shot 52% from the floor and 6 of 14 from three-point range in the first half, but committed 13 turnovers. While they did force 12 SFA turnovers, they only held a +2 rebounding advantage and were outscored 16-10 with points in the paint. Myles Johnson got into foul trouble for a second straight game, playing just 8 minutes and didn’t score in the first twenty minutes. Surprisingly, SFA also held a 8-1 edge in fast break points. It was a strange half. Harper Jr. led the way with 11 points and McConnell had 10.
Out of the break, Geo Baker, who was held scoreless to this point, hit a big three-pointer to get on the board. While both teams did a much better job of taking care of the basketball, SFA continued to hang around and Rutgers led 40-34 with 13:42 to play. The refs had called 11 fouls in the second half up to this point, as they had a much quicker whistle than they did in the first half.
A key moment in the game followed with Myles Johnson on the bench with 3 fouls and SFA forcing it inside, but Mamadou Doucoure stepped up defensively and forced a turnover. On the next possession, Young found Akwasi Yeboah who hit a jumper and extended the lead to 8 points, as that sequence of play led to a 4 point swing for Rutgers. After another offensive foul on SFA, Baker knocked down two free throws after RU was just 2 of 5 up to that point, pushing the lead to double digits. Young then found Baker for the lay-in to complete an 8-0 run and Rutgers led 46-34, forcing a SFA timeout with 11:45 remaining in the game.
Out of the timeout and without pressure, SFA bizarrely turned it over on a 10 second violation. Soon after a TV timeout, Paul Mulcahy made a great no look pass in transition to Yeboah for the dunk and the lead was at 14.
Yeboah made two free throws soon after and Rutgers was in the midst of a 12-0 run. During this stretch, SFA was self destructing on offense, going 5 minutes without scoring and committing 6 turnovers, several of them being unforced errors.
Both teams were in the bonus right after the midway point of the second half, with Rutgers in the double bonus as the refs had called 17 fouls in 12 minutes after calling that same amount the entire first half.
Trailing 53-37, SFA made its first three-pointer in the game as Oddyst Walker connected from deep. A Gavin Kensmil dunk made it an 11 point game with 6:27 to play. On the next Rutgers possession, Jacob Young attacked the rim, made the layup, drew the foul, and completed the three-point play the hard way.
SFA continued to battle and trailed 56-46 with 5 minutes to play after a David Kachelries three-pointer. Young drew a foul but missed both free throws, as Rutgers was struggling from the charity stripe once again. The fouls continued to get called, so the opportunity to improve down the stretch would present itself.
After SFA cut the lead to 8, Baker found Yeboah for the layup and the foul. After a TV timeout, he completed the three-point play and Rutgers led 60-49 with 4 minutes left in the game. After the Lumberjacks missed a three, Baker hit a signature step back jumper to extend the lead to 13. SFA Star Kevon Harris woke up after a quiet night up to this point, scoring 6 consecutive points to cut the lead to 62-55 with 1:37 to play.
Baker drew the foul on the next possession and he converted both free throws. After an SFA miss, Young picked up the foul and made both of his free throws as well. McConnell made three of four from the line to end the game with the final score ending at 69-57.
Rutgers did a good job of not allowing SFA star Kevon Harris much room to operate and while he finished with 18 points, he was just 6 of 16 from the floor and was a non-factor for extended stretches in the game. John Comeaux had 14 points and Gavin Kensmil had a double double with 11 points and 10 points.
McConnell led the way for Rutgers with a team high 16 points on 5 of 9 shooting, including 3 of 5 from three-point range. He added 6 rebounds and 2 assists and played outstanding defense on Harris, but also really helped set the tone in the first half with his shooting. So did Harper Jr., who despite a scoreless second half, finished with 11 points behind 3 of 6 shooting from behind the arc.
On the flip side, Yeboah had a big second half when he scored 12 of his 13 points on 4 of 5 shooting, as well as 5 boards. He has been the most consistent player on the team through the first five games of the season. Baker struggled at times and committed 5 turnovers, but finished with 11 points on 3 of 8 shooting, 4 assists, and 2 steals. Young had 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals, but was just 2 of 6 from the floor and also committed 5 turnovers.
Johnson struggled with foul trouble once again, but finished with a team high 8 rebounds and 4 blocks, as well as 3 points. Credit Doucoure for coming off the bench to play strong defense down low in Johnson’s absence.
On the postgame radio interview with Jerry Recco and Chris Carlin, head coach Steve Pikiell had this to say about his team’s effort: “Our guys came out ready to play. I’m proud of them. We played a really tough basketball team tonight and held them to a season low 57 points. We did a great job on the defensive end of the floor. We’ve been talking about closing out the right way on three-pointers and we were able to stop them tonight. We had some big baskets and big stops down the stretch.”
Offensively, the Scarlet Knights shot 49% from the floor, made 8 of 20 three-pointers for 40%, while having another up and down night from the free throw line, finishing 17 of 28 for 61%. However, they did make 9 of their last 10 down the stretch which was a positive. They held a +3 rebounding margin, both teams committed 19 turnovers, while SFA surprisingly won the battle with a 36-22 edge with points in the paint and 16-11 in fast break points.
Rutgers did a much better job of taking care of the basketball in the second half and also closing out on three-pointers on the defensive end the entire night. SFA was averaging 88 points coming into the game and RU held them to just 57 points. They were shooting 37.7% from three-point range on 20 attempts per game and they were just 2 of 13 on the night.
Up Next, Rutgers has almost a week before its next game when they host NJIT at the RAC on Tuesday, November 26th at 7:00 p.m. This is a good time to regroup and get some quality practice time in. The Highlanders had a KenPom ranking of 151 before Wednesday’s loss against Binghamton and will come to the RAC ready to play. What follows is a Black Friday matinee against UMASS and then the four game gauntlet against Pitt, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Seton Hall. It was a solid response from Rutgers against SFA and they need to continue to get better as the schedule continues to increase in difficulty.