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Rutgers falls flat in 71-60 loss at Pitt

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The Scarlet Knights looked out of sorts in a disappointing performance

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the first true road game against its first high major opponent of the season, Rutgers struggled to sustain a high level of play and it led to a disappointing performance. Plagued by too many turnovers, poor shot selection due to an inability to get to the rim and inconsistent defense, Pitt was able to dominate the game for most of the night, resulting in a 71-60 defeat.

Rutgers led 7-3 early and was playing with energy, before Trey McGowens drew two quick fouls on Caleb McConnell. The first he converted a three-point play the hard way and the second was called on McConnell for playing McGowens too closely. You can see in this clip that McConnell had his arm held and then took an intentional elbow in the face from McGowens, but he was called for the violation due to the new rule.

After Rutgers was holding steady with a 17-15 lead, Pitt badly outplayed them the rest of the first half. The Panthers finished the opening frame on a 20-10 run.

The Scarlet Knights fell into a 28-21 deficit on Ryan Murphy’s three-point play. Rutgers completely shut down on offense, failing to get any penetration and settling for contested three-point shots. They predictably fell into a three minute scoring drought and Dan Bonner calling the game on ESPNU said things were slipping away for Rutgers. This was still the first half and a premature call.

Rutgers did fall behind by 12 points, before Montez Mathis scored the final four points of the half. The difference in the game up to this point was turnovers. Rutgers committed 11 in the first half and Pitt held a 16-5 advantage in points off of turnovers because of it. The Scarlet Knights were playing tight and shot just 39% in the first half. Defense was allowing way too much space for Pitt to operate and find open looks. It was a disappointing performance in the opening frame, but as poorly as Rutegrs played, they only trailed by 8 points, 35-27.

After the break, Rutgers came out focused and played with purpose. They were locked down defensively and were attacking the rim effectively, leading to a 12-2 run to take back the lead at 39-37. Of course, basketball is a game of runs and Pitt responded with an 13-0 run to put RU behind by 11 points with 12 minutes left in the game. Three Rutgers turnovers keyed the Pitt run, who had made 5 shots in a row. Bonner once again proclaimed the game was slipping away from the Scarlet Knights.

Graduate transfer Akwasi Yeboah stepped up when Rutgers needed him most, as he drove to the rim, scoring on a layup and drawing a foul. He completed the three-point play but Pitt scored on its next possession.

McConnell drew Pitt’s 7th foul of the second half with 9 minutes remaining to get into the bonus, but he missed the front end of the one and one. After Jacob Young turned it over for the third time in the game, Pitt scored on the other end, forcing a Steve Pikiell timeout and Rutgers trailing 56-44 with 8:04 left to play.

Fortunately soon after, McGowens, who had 14 points at this point, picked up his fourth foul of the game. Harper Jr. knocked down both free throws and it sparked a Rutgers run. Pitt’s Murphy got called for a technical foul on a shot for kicking out his leg. Baker knocked down the free throw.

After a little back and forth, Rutgers trailed 62-52 with under five minutes remaining. Out of the timeout, Rutgers was able to cut the lead to 65-58 behind baskets from Myles Johnson and Harper Jr. However, Pitt answered with a mid-range jumper from Eric Hamilton to put the game out of read. The final score was 71-60.

Pitt showed to be the more experienced team, playing it’s fifth high major opponent of the season. They also came in holding opponents to just 39% from two-point range, but Rutgers made 21 of 37 shots from inside the arc. The issue was an over reliance from three-point range and a terrible night, making just 4 of 23 attempts. Even still, the real difference in the game was turnovers, as Rutgers committed 19 for a -6 margin. It led to Pitt holding a 28-11 edge in points off of turnovers. You can’t win road games playing like that.

The Scarlet Knights had three players score in double digits, as Ron Harper Jr., Myles Johnson and Montez Mathis all finished with 14 points. Harper Jr. had a double-double adding 10 rebounds, but he was just 6 of 15 shooting from the field. Johnson also had a double-double, grabbing a game high 14 boards and was 7 of 8 from the floor. Mathis was 6 of 12 from the floor and added 3 rebounds.

Geo Baker started off hot, making two early three-pointers, but after making his first three shots of the game, he missed his last eight on the night. Baker had 9 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 5 turnovers. Yeboah also finished with 9 points and 4 rebounds. No other Rutgers player scored, as the bench had a rough night with the exception of Yeboah. An all hands on deck type performance was needed but it didn’t happen.

McConnell was the only Rutgers player to finish with a +/- rating that wasn’t a negative with 7m despite not scoring. However, that early foul trouble hurt this team and he never got into a rhythm.

Pitt shot 47% from the floor and had four players score in double figures, led by 20 points from Xavier Johnson, who also had 8 assists and 3 rebounds. Rutgers held a +7 rebounding margin and 12-10 edge in second chance points, but it didn’t matter.

It doesn’t get any easier for Rutgers (6-2) now, who open Big Ten play on Sunday night at Michigan State. I do think the lack of big game before tonight hurt Rutgers. They got rattled on the road and stopped sharing the basketball on offense. The defensive intensity was nowhere where it needed to be. Their confidence was sucked away midway through the first half and other than that quick spurt out of halftime, Rutgers was clearly outplayed in this game. Time to regroup, as Wisconsin and Seton Hall at the RAC follow the visit to Sparty this weekend.

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