The most fans attended a season home opener in head coach Steve Pikiell’s tenure on Thursday night, as 5,692 faithful were ready to see this new look team. Unfortunately, adjusting to a more up tempo style and facing a team that opened it’s season two days prior, Rutgers struggled and escaped with a 73-71 victory at the RAC. They shot terribly and were poor defensively down the stretch, as Bryant made a bunch of big three-point shots at the end. Fortunately, some late heroics from their leader Geo Baker helped secure a much needed season opening win.
Showing how much lineup versatility this team has, head coach Steve Pikiell started Geo Baker, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper Jr. and Myles Johnson. However, Rutgers fell behind 10-5 as they were forcing things and looked a bit too amped up. They started 1 of 13 from the floor. Pikiell went to his bench and the foursome of Akwasi Yeboah, Shaq Carter, Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young, along with Baker, spurred a 8-0 run to take a 13-12 lead midway through the first half. Young started it off with an athletic drive for his first basket as a Scarlet Knight.
After Bryant came out of a timeout in a matchup zone, Mulcahy showed his versatility. He found open space and flashed in the middle of the zone, got to the rim and completed a three-point play.
The Scarlet Knights were in the midst of a stretch making 9 of 15 from the floor, as Mulcahy and Young provided a spark.
The visitors were hanging around and trailing 23-21 before Rutgers went on a 9-0 run as Bryant fell into a five plus minute scoring drought, missing 8 consecutive shots from the field. The Bulldogs ended its shooting slump with a three-point play by Adam Grant, who showed why he is a natural scorer. He led the way for Bryant with 15 first half points.
Bryant closed the gap to just three points, before a Yeboah three-pointer and Harper free throw pushed the lead to 38-30 at the half. Montez Mathis had a team high 7 points, while Baker led the team with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Rutgers shot poorly in the opening frame of the season, making just 39% of its shots from the field and just 2 of 10 from three-point range. However, they held a +13 rebounding margin and 22-4 advantage with points in the paint.
Out of the break, Rutgers came out with urgency and took control of the game. Mathis made a great pass in transition to McConnell to extend the lead to 42-33.
A few plays later, Rutgers had great ball movement in the halfcourt. A flurry of quick passes from Baker to Mathis to Baker to Mulcahy to Baker to Yeboah, who finished with a basket near the rim to give Rutgers a 52-36 lead. Mulcahy made the play, posting up in the middle of the zone, using a ball fake to move the defense, then passing it back to Baker at the top of the key, who found Yeboah near the rim.
However, Bryant continued to hang in and made Rutgers look bad on the defensive end several possessions in a row. RU fell into a shooting slump, making just 1 of 7 shots, but still were in command, leading 61-48 midway through the second half. The game was scoreless for a few minutes, but Bryant had three players with four fouls and over seven minutes to play.
After the Bulldogs cut the lead to 11 points, Rutgers wisely put the ball in the hands of Baker. He slowed things down, spread the team out and Carter was alone posting in the paint. Baker found him and Carter was fouled. He made 1 of 2, but the play showed the growth of Rutgers in their halfcourt offense.
Even so, the Scarlet Knights couldn’t make anything, falling into a 1 of 12 shooting slump and Baker missed a free throw off a Bryant technical due to their third flop call of the game. Finally, Rutgers broke through, as Baker found a streaking Mathis in transition who laid it in. However, Bryant’s Ayo Dada made a three-pointer, cutting the RU lead to 65-56 with 4:08 to play. It was Bryant’s 12th made shot from behind the arc on the night. More were to come.
On the next Bryant possession, Harper Jr. grabbed a big rebound and found Baker, who attacked the rim for a big bucket. Unfortunately, Rutgers lapsed on defense and Bryant made three-pointers on back to back possessions to cut the lead to 67-62 with 2:58 left in the game.
Out of the timeout, Pikiell called a isolation play for Harper Jr., who drove to the basket and finished while drawing the foul. He had struggled much of the game and missed another free throw.
With the lead back to just 5 points, Baker took matters into his own hands and made a signature step back mid-range jumper. However, Bryant kept making three’s and Rutgers led just 71-68 with just over one minute remaining.
Mathis jumped a passing lane for the steal and scored on the break. However, Bryant made its 17th three-pointer of the game to cut the score to 73-71 with 48 seconds to play. Yeboah missed a shot on the next offensive possession and the game was in jeopardy.
Bryant had the ball with the clock winding down, but Baker made a huge block to knock the ball out of bounds to keep the lead. With 5 seconds left out of a timeout, Grant went for the win with a corner three, but hit the back rim and Baker grabbed it as the clock ran out. Rutgers fans took a deep breath, as nothing came easy on opening night.
Montez Mathis had the best game of anyone, scoring 13 points on 5 of 12 shooting, grabbed 6 rebounds and made that huge defensive play in the final minute. Baker struggled shooting wise, making just 3 of 11 shots, including just 2 of 8 from three-point range. However, he contributed in other ways, leading Rutgers with 8 rebounds and 6 assists and just 1 turnover.
Harper Jr. tied Mathis for a team high 13 points, but he shot poorly as well, forcing things at times. He was just 3 of 10 from the floor and an horrific 4 of 11 from the free throw line. He added 6 rebounds. The only other Rutgers player to score in double digits was Yeboah, who had 10 points on 2 of 8 shooting, but made 5 of 6 from the free throw line.
The two other players to make their debuts, Young and Mulcahy, both had their moments. Young started the game 3 of 3 from the field but missed his last 5 shots and committed 6 turnovers. He was out of control and fell asleep defensively at times. He finished with 9 points but just 1 assist. Mulcahy provided energy and smarts, scoring 8 points on 3 of 5 shooting, along with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and just 1 turnover.
Myles Johnson had 9 points on 4 of 7 shooting, 7 boards and 1 block.
For Bryant, Grant scored a game 23 points on 7 of 16 shooting. The freshman Charles Pride scored 20 points as he was 5 of 8 from behind the arc. The Bulldogs were 17 of 45 from three-point range for 38%, which is what kept them in the game. Not sure, but that’s the most three’s attempted and made against Rutgers in many years.
The bottom line is it was just one game, but Rutgers has a long way to go. They had far too many lapses on defense, as Bryant had many open looks both inside and out in the second half. They also couldn’t make a shot down the stretch. Perhaps it was the rust and tired legs of the first game. Let’s hope so. They shot just 38% from the floor as a team, 28% from three-point range (9 of 32) and only made 18 of 32 shots for 56% from the free throw line. Rutgers really struggled against the zone of Bryant, which will be copied by numerous opponents moving forward.
They held a wide rebounding margin most of the game, but even got outhustled down the stretch. They did still finish +9 on the boards for the night. RU held a 32-10 edge with points in the paint, but abandoned attacking the rim late in the game. They only held a 26-23 advantage with fast break points.
Throw out the film and move on. Remember, Bryant came in with a game under its belt and Rutgers looked out of sorts. This team is clearly finding its way playing a new style and new identity. It wasn’t pretty, but they survived for the win and need to focus on getting better. They’ll host Niagara at the RAC on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. Hopefully, they learned from this game and it will show the next time out on the RAC floor.