The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered the Big Ten home opener on Wednesday in as close to a must win situation as a December game would warrant. After back to back, double digit losses on the road to Pitt and Michigan State last week, they desperately needed its first quality win of the season. Wisconsin came to Piscataway off a 20 point blow out of Indiana, but they’ve been inconsistent this season and were winless away from home. The Scarlet Knights came out with energy and purpose, as well as executed down the stretch to deliver an important 72-65 victory over the Badgers.
Rutgers jumped out to a 9-0 lead due to attacking the rim and bringing defensive pressure. It was an almost perfect start and they had Wisconsin rattled early on.
After a 5 point response from Wisconsin keyed by Brad Davison drawing a charge, Akwasi Yeboah, who wisely got the start instead of Caleb McConnell, hit a three-pointer. However, it was followed by Aleem Ford making his own deep ball, which started a 8-2 run that cut the Rutgers lead to 1 point. Myles Johnson picked up his second foul and the game was now a dogfight.
Rutgers responded with its bench, as Paul Mulcahy grabbed a big offensive rebound and found Jacob Young, who drove the baseline for the layup. Montez Mathis scored soon after and at the under-8 timeout Rutgers led 18-15. They held a 6-1 edge on the offensive glass, leading to a 8-0 second chance points advantage despite making just 2 of their last 11 shots at this juncture of the game.
Wisconsin made it a one point game once again and Rutgers was struggling on offense, falling in love with the three ball and missing often. Pikiell refocused the team by calling for pressure defense like they brought at the start of the game. It led to back to back steals that resulted in a three-point play the hard way from Mulcahy and Yeboah scoring off his own takeaway. A Geo Baker dunk made it a 25-19 lead with around six minutes left in the half.
After a tough drive and make by Mulcahy, Rutgers forced the 12th turnover of the half by Wisconsin with full court pressure. Baker scored on the following possession and it was 32-24 with 2.5 minutes to play. Unfortunately, Rutgers showed more growing pains by failing to close the half strong.
Their defense and decision making lapsed, resulting in a 9-0 run by Wisconsin that included a Trevor Anderson three at the buzzer. The Badgers had their first lead of the game at the half, 33-32, despite Rutgers dominating much of the opening frame. They had a +5 turnover margin and a 18-10 edge with points off of turnovers. They also held a 11-5 advantage on second chance points and +5 edge on the offensive glass. However, they shot just 38% from the floor and despite taking 12 more shots than Wisconsin, they trailed due to the Badgers making 55% from the floor, including 5 of 11 from three.
After the break, Rutgers reset their offensive approach and got back to attacking the rim and working the ball around in the halfcourt. Good ball movement led to a 7-0 scoring run, capped by a Geo Baker three as RU led 41-36 four minutes into the half. The Scarlet Knights made 4 of 6 shots to start the half, while the Badgers were just 1 of 5.
Wisconsin’s Ford made two free throws, but Rutgers responded with a Myles Johnson dunk off a great pass from Harper Jr., followed by a Baker steal and dunk to lead by 7 points.
After Ford scored a bucket, Rutgers had a poor offensive possession. McConnell chucked up a deep ball with the shot clock running out. Fortunately, Harper Jr. fought for the offensive rebound and made the putback, got fouled and converted from the line. Rutgers led 48-40 with over 13 minutes remaining.
Shaq Carter had a huge putback off the offensive glass with the Rutgers lead down to 4 points. After a defensive stop, Young scored quickly on the other end and the lead was back to 8 points.
After Wisconsin continued to battle and the score 54-49 with 8 minutes to play, fullcourt pressure didn’t phase the Badgers and a Kobe King basket cut the lead to 3 and on a 7-2 run.
Coming out of a timeout, Pikiell called Geo’s number and his drive led to a big make with a mid-range jumper. After a defensive stop, Baker drained a contested three to push the lead back to 8. Of course, Wisconsin continued to fight and after Kobe King scored, Myles Johnson picked up his fourth foul on a questionable call on an illegal screen. Baker made a great defensive play soon after, blocking a three and drawing a foul. He was unable to convert on the one on one though and King drew a foul on the other end. King made one of two, as Rutgers led 59-54 with just under five minutes left in the game.
Both teams struggled from the floor for several possessions until Baker made a great dribble drive to the rim for a huge layup. Trevor Anderson did the exact same thing on the next Wisconsin possession and drew the foul, converting the three-point play. Rutgers led 61-57 with 2:52 to play.
Baker continued to take over the game, making his patented step back jumper. However, Nate Reuvers made a bank three-pointer with the shot clock running down, making it 63-60. After Baker took a bad three, Johnson pulled down the offensive board and drew the foul. The worst free throw shooter on the team calmly made both to make it a five point lead with a minute and a half to play.
Kobe King drew the 5th foul of the game for Yeboah and made 1 of 2 to keep it a two possession game with 1 minute remaining. With the shot clock winding down and Wisconsin pressuring the ball, Caleb McConnell spun free off a double team and made a floater, drew the foul and converted the free throw. It was a monster play and after Wisconsin missed on its next possession, McConnell found Johnson for a lay-up. Rutgers found a way, winning 72-65. Wisconsin is now 0-3 at the RAC since RU joined the Big Ten.
One note on this is that the Badgers have more wins than any other Big Ten team the past 18 years while finishing top four in league all but once. It’s a quality win inching towards respect in the Big Ten. Not their best version this season, but a win over a top half Big Ten program nonetheless.
Geo Baker led the way with 22 points on 9 of 18 shooting after making some huge baskets down the stretch. He is best inside the arc and Baker was excellent with dribble penetration in this game. He also led Rutgers with 4 assists and 3 steals. It was a big game from the captain when his team needed it most.
Myles Johnson battled foul trouble all night, but hung in and played well in the second half, finishing with 12 points and 7 rebounds in just 18 minutes of action. In his first start of the season, Akwasi Yeboah battled his way to 9 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals. He played tough defense despite fouling out.
The sophomore trio of McConnell (7 points) , Ron Harper Jr. (6 points), and Montez Mathis (5 points) were inconsistent on offense, but had some key baskets and all three played well defensively. Although Shaq Carter had just 2 points and 4 rebounds, he gave Rutgers some much needed quality minutes and a key defensive stop off the bench.
As a team, Rutgers shot 46% from the floor in the game, but made 55% of its shots in the second half. Wisconsin made 48% for the game, but were held to 35% from three on 8 of 23 attempts. The Scarlet Knights were 9 of 13 from the free throw line, while making just 5 of 19 from three.
RU dominated in several key categories: 22-10 advantage in points off of turnovers, a +14 rebounding margin, including +11 on the offensive glass and a 23-5 advantage in second chance points, as well as a 42-28 edge in points in the paint.
It was a great team effort from this group and obviously the key was execution down the stretch. They made some big baskets and got some key stops on the defensive end. The crowd was top notch in the second half and protecting its home floor was a must. It was far from a perfect effort and Rutgers must be more consistent with their offensive approach, but it was a great response overall after a hard fought loss just three nights ago in East Lansing
Rutgers (7-3; 1-1) will now prepare for its third game in six days with blood rival Seton Hall coming to the RAC on Saturday. It’s always a must see affair but after tonight’s win and the Pirates coming in off a loss and without its best big man in Sandro, Saturday is a tremendous opportunity to pick up another quality win and continue positive momentum into the holiday break.