The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered the Big Ten opener winless away from the RAC this season and were handed the unenviable task of playing at conference favorite Michigan State on Sunday. They didn’t look up for the challenge in the first few minutes of the game, but ended up showing plenty of fight and even led near the end of the first half. After back and forth much of the second half, including a one point game midway through, Rutgers predictably fell short down the stretch. Michigan State was able to convert near the rim and from the free throw line, winning the game by the final score of 77-65.
Rutgers did a good job getting to the rim for the first four shots of the game but only made two. It was a theme of the game in that RU played well enough to stay in it against MSU, but they missed taking advantage of several stretches that could have led to a major upset. After falling behind 11-4, the defense tightened and Rutgers moved the ball better in the halfcourt on offense. MSU was held scoreless from the field for almost four minutes, but Rutgers wasn’t fully able to take control of the game. They were able to cut the lead to 14-11 as Paul Mulcahy provided a spark off the bench.
The Spartans continued to dominate on the offensive glass and led 22-13 before Rutgers responded with a 6-0 run that changed the game. It sparked what resulted in a 15-5 run that amounted to a 28-27 lead after a three from Yeboah with three minutes remaining in the opening half. However, MSU ended the half on a 6-0 run as Thomas Kithier scored 4 points during the final minutes.
Rutgers shot 43% from the floor in the opening frame, as the Spartans shot just 35%. However, MSU held a 5-1 edge on the offensive glass that resulted in a 9-2 advantage in second chance points, which was the difference of the game up to this point.
Five minutes into the second half, the foul line was a differentiator as RU was 0 of 5 while MSU was 8 of 10. The score was 37-32 and then MSU went on a another 6-0 run that culminated in a dagger of a three-pointer from the great Cassius Winston. It was the largest lead of the game. Myles Johnson was back in the game with three fouls. Mulcahy remained in the game as well with three fouls, but showed his worth in completing a ball reversal by finding a wide open Yeboah who buried the three ball.
Jacob Young, who has been abysmal on offense this season and struggled up to this point, knocked down four straight free throws on consecutive possessions to make it a 43-39 game with 12 minutes to play. A minute later out of a timeout, Yeboah was fouled on a three-point attempt and converted all three free throws. It was a one point game midway through the second half.
Montez Mathis stepped up with a huge three after going 1 of 2 from the line the possession before to make it a 50-48 game with 8 minutes remaining.
Soon after, Myles Johnson picked up his fourth foul with just over seven minutes left and Rutgers trailing by four points. It began a key two minute stretch that saw MSU have another 6-0 run as the Scarlet Knights looked to be on the ropes. Instead, Young came up with a steal and found Mathis in transition, who completed the three-point play.
Down five points with just over five minutes to play, Ron Harper Jr. took a step back three from the top of the key that missed. Winston converted two free throws on the next trip down the court. Rutgers went isolation for Harper Jr. on the next possession and he banked in a shot. After a MSU three, Young scored to keep it a six point game with four plus minutes to play.
The Spartans stepped up from the free throw line, as Rutgers settled for jumpers and fell behind 66-55 with three minutes remaining. The defense looked tired and MSU was scoring near the rim often down the stretch. Myles Johnson finished a disappointing night by fouling out and the final score of didn’t fully represent how close the game actually was.
Cassius Winston led Michigan State with 23 points and 7 assists, as four Spartans scored in double figures. Winston had an answer in the most clutch situations and showed why he is a great player. Xavier Tillman was effective in the frontcourt, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists.
As I mentioned in the game preview, Yeboah scored 15 points against Michigan State two seasons ago with Stony Brook in East Lansing and he did even better tonight. His experience and poise were evident as he led Rutgers with 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting and 4 rebounds. He made several big shots to keep the Scarlet Knights close.
Jacob Young struggled for much of the first half offensively, but played his best stretch of the season in the second half. He finished with 12 points on just 3 of 10 shooting, but he made 6 of 7 free throws, as well as 4 rebounds and 3 assists. He was also disruptive on the defensive end at times.
Ron Harper Jr. finished with 9 points on just 4 of 12 shooting after not doing much in the second half. He added 4 rebounds, while Montez Mathis had 9 points and 5 rebounds. Still, Rutgers needed bigger nights from both.
Paul Mulcahy was a great spark off the bench and his 3 assists to 0 turnovers doesn’t properly quantify how he makes the offense better. He provided energy and ball movement.
The foul trouble of Myles Johnson was a huge problem for Rutgers, who finished with just 2 points and 3 rebounds in only 15 minutes of action. Geo Baker had just 4 points on 1 of 7 shooting, but did have 5 assists to zero turnovers, as well as 3 boards. However, Rutgers needs his offense to win on the road.
MSU outshot Rutgers 44% to 40%, as well as from the free throw line, making 22 of 27 for 81%, while RU was just 13 of 19 for 68%. The Spartans were also +8 on the boards and limited offensive possessions for Rutgers down the stretch. The Scarlet Knights only turned it over 11 times and held a 15-12 edge in points off of turnovers
Rutgers showed once again they are a far tougher team to play when they share the basketball and attack the rim on offense, while contesting almost every shot on defense. Unfortunately, when you play a team as talented as Michigan State, even a down version of the Spartans, you can’t win without playing your best. Rutgers left too many points on the table near the rim and from the foul line. It was an encouraging effort, but also a very frustrating performance because this was a game they actually could have won. The bench responded in a big way and outscored MSU 37-12, but at the same time the starters had a disappointing night which can’t happen in such an important game.
Up next, Rutgers returns home for a huge week. First, they host Wisconsin for the Big Ten home opener in what is a must win game, while blood rival Seton Hall visits the RAC on Saturday at 4 p.m. The Scarlet Knights are now 6-3 on the season and need to win at least one this next week to generate momentum heading into the holiday break.