It was a wild game in Champaign, as Rutgers put together its best offensive performance of the season and saw its four freshman come of age, only to fall because of a freshman of Illinois, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, dominated from halftime on. Rutgers handled the defensive pressure of the Illini very well and made so many great plays down the stretch to send it to overtime after trailing by 7 points midway in the second half. After taking a four point lead in the extra session, Illinois ended the game on a 13-4 run to win one of the best games in the Big Ten this season, 99-94.
First Half Summary
After it was tied at 7 early, Rutgers fell behind 17-10 but answered with a 9-0 run to take the lead despite having already committed 6 turnovers. Illinois had missed five shots in a row during this stretch.
The Illini answered by making 6 of its next 8 shots and led 34-27 with about 6 minutes remaining in the opening frame. Baker and Omoruyi each had 2 fouls as both teams were in the bonus. Fortunately, Baker made a huge play on the next possession, getting into the lane and making a contested shot near the rim, drawing the foul and converting the three-point play from the free throw line. After just the second turnover of the game for Illinois on a steal from McConnell, Mathis found him in transition and he drained a huge three-pointer to make it 34-33 with less than five minutes left in the half. It was 37-35 Illinois at the under-four timeout with Rutgers shooting 61% from the floor at this point in the game. The freshman four of McConnell, Mathis, Harper Jr. and Johnson had combined for 27 points already.
Rutgers went on a 10-3 run playing with poise and purpose to lead 45-40 with Baker and Omoruyi on the bench with 2 fouls. The surge late in the half was huge on the road and without its two leaders. It was 45-42 at the half as Rutgers shot an impressive 55% from the floor. They also held a +6 rebounding margin and despite committing 8 turnovers, they lost only 2 the final 12 minutes of the half. The freshman four combined for 35 first half points, led by Caleb McConnell with 12.
Second Half Summary
Ron Harper Jr. answered a mini 7-2 run to start the half with 5 straight points, including a great bucket in transition that he converted into a three-point play with a made free throw. After Illinois hit a three-pointer to tie it at 54, Baker made a tough basket on a move from penetration along the baseline to regain the lead.
Omoruyi then drew a charge and Rutgers led by 2 at the first media timeout of the second half with 14:41 to play.
It was back and forth for a few minutes as a pair of McConnell free throws made it 63-62 Illinois with just over 11 minutes to play. Earlier he was robbed of a three-point play as he drew a foul and converted a circus shot, but the official called it contact on the floor and waved off the basket. It was still a big play as Ayo Dosunmu headed to the bench with 11 points and four fouls.
Just past the midway point of the second half, Rutgers had committed just 3 fouls and had drawn 9 fouls from the Illini. An Omoruyi miss on a one and on and trailing 69-65 was a huge swing in the game, as Giorgi Bezhanishvili tipped in a missed shot and was fouled on the play. He converted the three-point play and Illinois led 72-65 with 9:06 left in the game. On the next possession Baker missed a rushed shot and a foul was called on Shaq Carter. With Rutgers in trouble, Pikiell called for a 2-3 zone for the first time in the game. It worked on back to back possessions as Rutgers cut the lead to four before Giorgi hit a jump hook.
Illinois led 74-68 with six minutes to play before Rutgers knocked down two huge three-pointers from Mathis and Baker. Soon after a Caleb McConnell three tied the game at 80 with just under three minutes remaining.
As he had all second half, Giorgi Bezhanishvili was carrying Illinois by scoring 23 points since halftime. He gave the Illini a two point lead, but Harper Jr tied it with a jumper. Aaron Jordan took back the lead with a huge three-pointer with 1:57 to play. Rutgers continued to battle and McConnell cut the lead to 1 with 27 seconds to play. Illinois’ Ayo only converted one of two from the line and Harper Jr. tied the game on a heroic drive with just 10 seconds to play. Rutgers held firm on the other end and overtime we went.
To start the extra session, Rutgers scored four quick points from Doorson and a transition layup from Mathis on a tremendous bounce pass from Omoruyi. However, Illinois responded and a Frazier three-pointer gave them a 1 point lead. McConnell, as he had all game, answered on the next possession with a high arcing jumper. However, Bezhanishvili continued to kill Rutgers in the paint and gave Illinois a 95-92 lead on two free throws and a basket with 1:39 to play in overtime.
Harper Jr. was short on a jump shot on the next possession, but Rutgers stopped Illinois. Harper Jr. had a great look from behind the arc and it went in and out, followed by Omoruyi fouling on the rebound. It was a gut punch for sure as Illinois made both free throws and led by 5 with less than a minute to play. The final score was 99-94.
The Game Changed When
With Rutgers trailing 34-27 and just over 6 minutes left in the first half, they answered by closing out the half on a 18-8 run. While Baker started it off with a three-point play, he was soon on the bench with two fouls, joining Omoruyi. The freshman four scored 13 points during this run as Rutgers played handled the defensive pressure of Illinois with ease and changed the dynamic of the game.
It Was Over When
Feliz of Illinois made four free throws in the final minute, including his last pair with 34 seconds to play and gave Illinois a five point lead for the final points of the game.
For Illinois, Giorgi Bezhanishvili won the game by dominating inside, scoring 38 points on 14 of 18 shooting as well as making 7 of 8 shots from the free throw line. He added 7 rebounds, but his low post scoring was something Rutgers had no answer for and it cost them the game.
For Rutgers, Caleb McConnell was sensational, scoring a career high 25 points on 8 of 10 shooting and 6 of 8 from the free throw line. He also grabbed 9 rebounds, swiped 3 steals and dished out 2 assists in an unbelievable performance. McConnell handled the Illinois defensive pressure with the calm and cool of a veteran, playing under control and showed his ability to create quality shots that he was able to convert on most of the game.
Rutgers held a +4 edge on the boards and +1 on the offensive glass, but were outscored 13-8 on second chance points. They committed 15 turnovers, but played against an Illinois team that has the highest defensive turnover rate in Big Ten play in a decade. They were able to generate 11 turnovers from Illinois and the points off of turnovers was even at 17.
It was an even 50-50 with points in the paint and Rutgers was great in transition, holding a 20-16 advantage.
Rutgers shot an amazing 51%, the best shooting performance they’ve had in a Big Ten game this season. There were just 7 of 23 from three-point range for 30% and were inconsistent from the free throw line, making 13 of 21 for 62%. Illinois shot 49% from the floor, 35% from three-point range, and 19 of 26 from the line for 73%.
Other Rutgers Notables
The freshman four combined for 65 points in the game and as a group showed a ton of promise. Montez Mathis scored 17 points on 7 of 16 shooting, including 2 of 6 from behind the arc. He added 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. Harper Jr. had 15 points on 6 of 15 shooting, but was 0 of 7 from three-point range. However his basket to send the game to overtime showed how dangerous he can be attacking the basket. He added 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and 1 steal. Myles Johnson made all 4 of his shots for 8 points, but none came after halftime. He did have 5 rebounds.
Geo Baker scored 15 points on 6 of 14 shooting, including 2 of 6 from three-point range. He struggled with 5 turnovers to just 2 assists and was in foul trouble the entire game. Omoruyi also had four fouls, but battled after appearing to hurt his wrist on two occasions in the game. He had just 6 points on 3 of 6 shooting, but had 11 rebounds and 5 assists, including some incredible passes.
What We Learned
Rutgers plays with a ton of grit and toughness. While the defense wasn’t good tonight, they surprised by adapting to Illinois’ style and were able to hang in a fast paced game. They handled the pressure of the pack line defense worlds better than last season. The freshman four are improving in a big way and today was exhibit A. This was a hard fought loss and is tough to take, simply for the fact they kept battling after being down three late, only to send it to overtime and score the first four points of the extra session. The reality is no one expected them to be able to keep up with Illinois in a shootout, who shocked 9th ranked Michigan State earlier this week. The officiating was suspect at times, especially late, but thus is life on the road in the Big Ten. Even so, you have to be encouraged by the effort this team played with and the offense has rapidly improved the past two games. Rutgers continues to get better despite the loss.
Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood:
“I give a lot of credit to Coach Pikiell and his staff for the team they’ve put together. They’re tough and they are physical. I didn’t expect this high scoring a game because of how good they are defensively. Their young guards are really talented. They are well coached. You know when you play Rutgers that it is going to be a tough, physical game.
Rutgers Head Coach Steve Pikiell:
Opening Statement: “Great game. Great environment. Great if you weren’t coaching the game. They play really hard. I have to give Illinois credit. They made a few more plays. I love the way my team fought. It was a great college basketball game; we just came up a little bit short.”
On the matchup defensively: “Giorigi was good, obviously, a career night. We tried a lot of different guys on him too. I like their whole team. They have a lot of different options. I thought we did a good job on their guards. Their guards have been killing people. Obviously our defense needs to be better against a team like that. We’re young too, so for us to score that many points, we did some good things. That’s a real difficult matchup.”
On the pace of the game: “I thought the game was up-and down. They’re good defensively, but we scored a lot of points. They played a few good segments, we played a few good segments. They play very different than anyone else. So there was a lot more possessions in this game. You really have to take every one and make the most of it.”
On the team’s offense: “I thought we were in attack mode all day. We made a lot of tough shots. They did too. This game just came down to a couple of tough ones. They made a couple down the stretch and we didn’t. But I thought we did a good job taking care of the ball that forces a lot of turnovers. They were just a few points better.”
Rutgers (11-12; 4-9) will stay on the road and in the state of Illinois no less, as they head to Evanston to face Northwestern on Wednesday night. The Wildcats defeated the Scarlet Knights at the RAC in January by 9 points, but Eugene Omoruyi did not play due to injury. After playing so well on the offensive end tonight, they’ll bring momentum with them to Wednesday’s game that is a major opportunity for them to put distance between them and Northwestern (12-10; 3-8) in the Big Ten standings.
It was announced during the game that Steve Pikiell’s mother passed away early this morning. We wish him and his family condolences during this difficult time.