It wasn’t pretty, but it was a quintessential Rutgers victory over Northwestern on Wednesday night. They struggled offensively, but were the tougher team and dominated in the interior for a 59-56 win to split the season series against the Wildcats. More importantly, they won its second road game in conference play this season and just third in five years, as well as a program best fifth regular season Big Ten victory.
First Half Summary
It was a sloppy start for the boys in Scarlet, as they committed six turnovers in first 8 minutes of the game. Despite that and only scoring 8 points at this point, they only trailed Northwestern by 3. Geo Baker put together his own 6-0 run and after he made a three-pointer at the 8 minute mark, it gave Rutgers its first lead of the game at 14-13. Vic Law soon tied it on a free throw to break a four-plus minute scoring drought for the Wildcats.
With the game tied at 16, Rutgers made three consecutive field goals with baskets from Montez Mathis, Peter Kiss and Myles Johnson to jump out in front with a 22-16 lead. Of course, Rutgers proceeded to go scoreless the final three-plus minutes of the half and the game was tied at 22 at the break.
Both teams struggled mightily in the opening frame. Rutgers shot 34% from the field, 1 of 10 from three-point range and 1 of 4 from the free throw line. Northwestern shot 35% overall, 1 of 8 from three-point range and 3 of 6 from the line. The Scarlet Knights committed 10 turnovers but held a +6 rebounding margin. As poor as Rutgers played in the first half offensively, they were stout on the defensive end. It was either team’s game to win entering the second half.
Second Half Summary
Out of the break, Northwestern was the sharper team and led 33-30 around the 14 minute mark with the ball in transition after a steal. Enter Caleb McConnell, who got sick on the plane the day before and battling flu like symptoms per the BTN announcers. He dove and tipped the ball out of the hands of Anthony Gaines for the steal. Baker recovered it and found Mathis down on the other end that lead to an emphatic dunk. The hustle play from McConnell got him going, as he proceeded to score 5 points on a three-pointer and a jumper. It gave Rutgers a 42-40 lead with just under 11 minutes remaining.
The defense of Rutgers was superb in this game and they held Northwestern without a field goal for four minutes. It was still an offensive struggle for the Scarlet Knights, as Omoruyi missed the front end of the one and one with a 44-41 lead just a little more than seven minutes to play. However, after another defensive stop, Baker found Shaq Doorson on an alley-oop for a monster dunk and a five point lead.
Soon after Omoruyi hit a huge three at the top of the arc and Rutgers led 49-41.
Northwestern extended its streak without a field goal to almost six minutes before a Vic Law make cut the lead to 51-45 with five minutes to play. Ron Harper Jr with four fouls made two good drives during this stretch and went to the line twice. He made just 1 of 2 both trips, as Rutgers led 53-47 with 2:52 to play and the ball as Steve Pikiell called a timeout. Baker found room to drive but missed the shot near the rim. Soon after Turner hit a three at the top of the arc to cut the lead to three with 1:50 remaining.
On the next Rutgers possession, Omoruyi took control and fought his way into the lane, converting from about seven feet from the rim. However, Vic Law hit a three for Northwestern on the next possession. Pikiell called a timeout with 49 seconds left in the game and Rutgers leading 55-53. Baker found Myles Johnson down low, who made a strong move for the basket and drew the foul. He missed and Vic Law hit another three after an offensive rebound from Northwestern. Rutgers led 57-56 with the ball and 18 seconds remaining.
Trouble arrived as Rutgers failed to get the ball inbounds and turned it over in a crucial situation. Fortunately, the interior defense of Rutgers stiffened and Law missed his shot in the paint. Omoruyi was fouled on the other end and converted BOTH free throws, as Rutgers won the game 59-56.
The Game Changed When
The steal from McConnell that was pure guts and guile was a huge swing play in the game. Instead of Rutgers potentially down 5 points, the Mathis dunk cut it to 1 and it sparked McConnell, who was playing with flu like symptoms and got the team going in the second half after that play.
It Was Over When
When the desperation three of Northwestern, who made three shots from behind the arc in the closing minutes, missed the rim and the clock hit zero.
For Northwestern, Vic Law overcame foul trouble and almost single handidly won the game before just falling short. He finished with 17 points on just 6 of 16 shooting, as well as 4 assists and 3 rebounds.
For Rutgers, Eugene Omoruyi personified this team as he gutted things out for the win. He suffered a bloody nose early in the game and wasn’t doing much offensively for most of the night. However, his defense on Dererk Pardon was great, as he just scored 6 points and only got 5 shots off in the game. Omoruyi hit those clutch free throws in the final seconds and played well down the stretch. He finished with 11 points on just 4 of 12 shooting and added 7 boards.
Rutgers dominated inside against the Wildcats as expected. They held a +14 rebounding margin and a 34-14 edge with points in the paint.
The Scarlet Knights were great in transition as well, outscoring Northwestern 25-5 in fast break points.
RU shot 41% from the floor, just 3 of 16 from three-point range and only 8 of 15 from the free throw line. However, their defense was stiflingly and Northwestern shot just 36% from the field and 7 of 23 for 30% from behind the arc.
Northwestern held a +7 turnover margin, but only had a 15-11 edge in points off of them.
Other Rutgers Notables
Montez Mathis had 12 points on 5 of 12 shooting and added 6 rebounds. He struggled from deep, going 0 for 5.
Geo Baker tied Mathis with a team high 12 points on 5 of 11 shooting, as well as 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals.
McConnell was sick but his second half spurt really got Rutgers going. He finished with 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 massive steal.
Harper Jr. had 7 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds, while he did a good job of attacking the rim late when Rutgers needed to be assertive on the offensive end.
What We Learned
This team plays together and is a rising program no one in the Big Ten wants to play. They are deficient from a shooting perspective in every way, but their effort and toughness overcame those struggles tonight. It was a huge win for this young team that is literally growing before our eyes. After playing out of their minds offensively and losing a heartbreaker against Illinois, they went back to their strength, defense and rebounding, resulting in a big win.
Rutgers heads home for a big time game on Saturday night against no. 21/17 Iowa in front of a sold out crowd at the RAC. At 12-12 overall and 5-9 in Big Ten play, Rutgers is just one win out of 7th place. It’s a remarkable reality for this group that has all but one player returning next year with two key pieces being added next season. Better days aren’t only ahead, they have arrived.
For Dave White’s four thoughts, click here.