The Rutgers men’s basketball team produced its most complete performance of the season on Tuesday night, dominating NJIT for a 85-58 victory. After a slow start, the defense kicked in and the Scarlet Knights stormed past the Highlanders for an easy win that featured several players producing their best games of the season.
NJIT made 6 of its first 8 shots to lead 14-9 at the first TV timeout. The defense of Rutgers was porous and the team showed some rust after not having played a game in six days. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knights started to wake up and slowly ramped up its defensive intensity.
With the game tied at 18 midway through the first half, Akwasi Yeboah made a great pass to Geo Baker at the top of the arc and he drained the three ball to give Rutgers the lead. It sparked a 15-2 run in which Myles Johnson began to dominate in the low post. The Highlanders had no answer on multiple possessions during this stretch and Rutgers was wisely feeding him in the interior.
On the flip side, Rutgers was playing great defensively and was putting heavy ball pressure on NJIT along the perimeter, disrupting their flow in the halfcourt and holding the Highlanders without a field goal for over a four minute stretch. Geo Baker in particular was really locked in and head coach Steve Pikiell was throwing all kinds of looks at guard Zach Cooks, who came into the game scoring 25.5 points per game, 5th best in the country. Rutgers never gave him room to breath in the opening frame and he was held to just 2 first half points on 1 of 6 shooting.
Rutgers ended the first half on a 18-4 run as Johnson and Ron Harper Jr. dominated offensively. RU was also executing multiple ball reversals in the halfcourt and working to get good looks as well. It led to 50% shooting from the floor and they also held a +7 rebounding margin.
After the break, Rutgers came out on fire as Ron Harper Jr. was shredding the zone of NJIT with the help of Paul Mulcahy’s passing and Montez Mathis’ lob to Baker for a slam dunk in transition forced a timeout. The visitors trailed 51-28 less than five minutes into the second half. Harper Jr. already had 9 points in the second frame at this point. The Scarlet Knights were dominating on the boards as well and making NJIT work hard on the other end, not letting them find any easy looks at all. It led to some easy baskets in transition.
The Highlanders didn’t quit and fought back some as the score was 59-44 before Rutgers went on a 6-0 run behind a Montez Mathis three-pointer and a Baker three-point play the hard way.
Ron Harper Jr. was excellent on the offensive end the entire game and was able to find the soft spot in the middle of the NJIT zone, consistently hitting the mid-range jumper. He’s relied too much on the deep ball this season and it was encouraging to see him attack the basket all night, taking just two shots from three-point range (0-2). He led all scorers with 25 points on 12 of 16 shooting, as well as 7 rebounds. His potential is enormous and this performance hopefully helps him find a rhythm in his game moving forward.
Myles Johnson gave the best performance of his season so far, finishing with a double double of 17 points on 8 of 11 shooting and a game high 11 rebounds. While he wasn’t playing in the forest against the trees of the Big Ten, it was great to see him dominate the way he did in the paint. His mutton chop sideburns obviously helped his mojo as well.
Geo Baker really picked his spots well in this game and didn’t force things too much. He beared down defensively and let his offense come to him, as he did most of his damage in the second half. Baker finished with 14 points on 5 of 8 shooting, as well as 5 assists and just 1 turnover.
Paul Mulcahy looked more comfortable on both ends of the floor and ran the offense a good amount of the time, even with Baker and Jacob Young on the floor. He demonstrated his high basketball IQ and passing ability on his way to dishing out a team high 7 assists to just 1 turnover. He didn’t score on only one shot attempt, but also grabbed 3 rebounds and finished with a +22 rating, the second highest on the team in this game.
Caleb McConnell was streaky and rode the bench much of the second half after a technical foul, but he came on late and knocked down two jumpers, including one from three to finish with 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting, 3 assists and zero turnovers.
Also a shoutout to walk-on Joey Downes, who scored his first points of the season with two late free throws.
As a team, Rutgers shot an amazing 21 of 32 for 65.6% from the floor in the second half and 58% shooting overall for the game. RU assisted on 22 of 35 made field goals. They attacked the rim and were decent enough from three-point range, making 5 of 14 for 36% but didn’t force many attempts. RU had a monster 50-24 advantage with points in the paint, held a +14 rebounding margin and a 16-5 edge in second chance points. They held NJIT to just 36% shooting and Cooks scored just 10 points on the night, 15 below his season average and he made just 3 of 15 shots.
Up next, Rutgers hosts UMASS (5-2) for a Black Friday matinee at the RAC. Hopefully this team can play as focused and sharply as they did in this win. The four game gauntlet looms, starting with road games at Pitt and Michigan State next week. The past two games have seen rise in the level of play on the defensive end, which is an encouraging sign. Offensively, Rutgers was extremely efficient and shared the basketball well. It was obvious how well this team worked on their weaknesses in practice the past week between games, a sign of a well coached team. They played with purpose on both ends of the floor and are getting better. The next five games will tell us a lot about the ceiling that this team can potentially reach this season.
editor’s note: Stephen F. Austin, who Steve Pikiell called an NCAA Tournament team that Rutgers beat 69-57 last week & held 30+ points below its season scoring average, stunned no. 1 and previously unbeaten Duke 85-83 in OT in Cameron last night. SFA is now 5-1 this season with its only loss at the RAC.