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Rutgers Squanders Second Half Lead To Fall To Nebraska 68-61

A season of progress ended on a frustrating three game losing streak

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Nebraska vs Rutgers David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that Rutgers made 61% of its shots from two-point range and were +13 on the boards, sloppy ball handling, foul trouble and an inability to put Nebraska away cost them dearly in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. Leading 51-46 with seven minutes to play, Nebraska went on a 15-2 run and ran Rutgers off the court. It was disappointing on many levels, as the Scarlet Knights had plenty of chances to extend the lead if they could just take care of the basketball. Instead, a season worst 22 turnovers was their undoing, as Nebraska ended their season with a 68-61 defeat. Nebraska had just six scholarship players available, but Rutgers looked mentally exhausted and fumbled away a very winnable game.

First Half Summary

It was a good start for the Scarlet Knights, as they jumped out to a 12-4 lead, forcing a Nebraska timeout just six minutes into the game.

However, Rutgers turned the ball over in four of its next five possessions and the Huskers were able to cut the lead to 14-12. That’s when captain Eugene Omoruyi stepped up and knocked down back to back jumpers to give Rutgers a 18-14 lead at the under 8 timeout. However, the Scarlet Knights were in a bit of foul trouble, as Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell each were on the bench with two fouls.

After leading 21-14 from a Johnson outlet pass in transition to Peter Kiss for a layup, Nebraska held Rutgers scoreless for five minutes and went on a 9-0 run. The Huskers were taking away driving lanes, were doubling the player with the ball, and the offense of RU came to a standstill. The Scarlet Knights trailed at the half 26-25.

It was an odd opening frame, as Rutgers shot 53% from the field and dished out 9 assists on 10 field goals. They held Nebraska to 34% shooting, but RU took 10 less shots due to 11 first half turnovers. The Scarlet Knights were +3 on the boards, but had zero offensive rebounds and Nebraska held a 18-10 edge with points in the paint.

Foul trouble was an issue for Rutgers as well, as Montez Mathis had three, while Caleb McConnell had two. For Nebraska, Glynn Watson Jr. had two fouls, but he had a good first half, scoring 7 points and dishing out 2 assists, as well as playing great defense on Geo Baker. Rutgers did a good job on Isaiah Roby and James Palmer Jr, who combined for just 9 points on 3 of 17 from the floor. All three Husker stars played every minute of the first half due to having just six scholarship players available. Eugene Omoruyi led the way for Rutgers, scoring 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting and 4 of 4 from the foul line.

Second Half Summary

Right out of the gate, Rutgers attacked and McConnell scored on a putback, drawing Watson’s third foul of the game. They jumped out with a 9-1 run after Omoruyi had a smart finish spinning away from a double team and then finding Myles Johnson for a alley-opp. The Scarlet Knights led 34-27 just three minutes into the second half.

Nebraska creeped back into it at 38-35, but with the shot clock expiring Ron Harper Jr. kept his composure and calmly knocked down a mid-range jumper. Rutgers had made 15 of 20 shots from two-point range at this point in the game. However, James Palmer Jr. was taking over for the Huskers and had 14 second half points at the midway mark with Rutgers holding onto a 45-42 lead. After a timeout, Palmer Jr. made it a one point game after making two free throws.

McConnell found Johnson inside for the bucket, but Mathis picked up his fourth foul on the next possession. It gave Nebraska another opportunity and Johnny Trueblood cut the lead back to 1. McConnell continued to play well and stole it before getting fouled in transition. He made both and on the next possession, Myles Johnson pushed the lead to 5 points with an emphatic dunk.

A key adjustment was putting Harper Jr. on Palmer Jr., as he shut him down on consecutive possessions. However, nothing was coming easy for Rutgers in this game and they fell into a three minute scoring drought. After Nebraska went into the bonus on the 7th foul from RU with just over 4 minutes remaining, the lead was just 1. Roby made two more and Rutgers trailed 52-51. Baker then found Shaq Carter at the rim, but he missed the bunny. James Palmer Jr. then hit a step back three and Nebraska was on a 9-0 run, as the Scarlet Knights trailed by 4 with 3:13 to play. It was then 57-51 with two minutes to play before Palmer Jr. stole it, slammed it home and drew a flagrant 1 foul on Omoruyi. He missed both but it was Huskers ball while on a 13-0 run. McConnell soon after fouled out and Rutgers hadn’t made a field goal in over five minutes. Nebraska won going away 68-61, finishing the game on a 22-10 run in the final seven minutes.

The Game Changed When

With Rutgers leading 21-14 and seemingly close to pulling away from a undermanned Nebraska squad, the Huskers responded with a 9-0 run, turning the game into a close battle the rest of the way. Once again with the Scarlet Knights leading 51-46 with seven minutes to play, a 15-2 run spurred Nebraska to victory. Turnovers and too many fouls on the defensive end cost Rutgers dearly.

It Was Over When

When Palmer Jr. stole it and drew the flagrant foul to put Nebraska up 8 points with less than two minutes to play. The air had officially been let out of Rutgers. They battled to the end and made a few shots, but it was already over.

Game Balls

James Palmer Jr. was the difference in the game. Despite not having the most efficient game, shooting 9 of 19 from the floor, he dominated offensively by creating his own shot and making 14 of 22 shots from the foul line. He scored 34 points, adding 2 rebounds and 2 assists.

Eugene Omoruyi was the driving force once again, scoring a team high 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting. He added 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Gene did look tired at the end and fouled out, visibly frustrated. Regardless, the junior had a really good season and showed marked improvement for a second consecutive year.

Key Stats

Rutgers shot 49% overall and held the Huskers to just 40%. Both teams shot under 30% from behind the arc as well (NEB 3 of 15; RU 4 of 16).

Nebraska made 21 of 32 free throws in the game, which was 21 more attempts than Rutgers had. The refs certainly were frustrating tonight, but Rutgers should only blame themselves for this loss. They did show improvement from the line, making 9 of 11.

Rutgers had three players foul out with Omoruyi, Mathis, who never got going, and McConnell.

The stat of the game was 22 Rutgers turnovers to just 9 for Nebraska, who took advantage and held a 24-9 edge in points off of them.

Rutgers was +13 on the boards, + 20 on bench points, and dished out 18 assists on 24 field goals, but it wasn’t enough to overcome that many turnovers.

Other Rutgers Contributors

Myles Johnson played well and finished with a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds. He also had 3 assists and 1 steal. Johnson needs to work on his footwork and going strong at the rim, but his potential is massive.

Caleb McConnell continues to make winning plays and looked like the best player for Rutgers at times in this game. He finished with 7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1 steal.

Geo Baker struggled for a third consecutive game, looking very tired most of the way. He had a burst at the end to finish with 9 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal. Baker did commit 4 turnovers and didn’t look to attack in the halfcourt nearly enough.

What We Learned

At 14-14, fans hoped this team was ready to make the leap towards a winning season and NIT berth. The reality was they weren’t ready and stumbled badly in the last week and a half of the season. A heartbreaking loss to Penn State followed by Issa Thiam’s arrest and subsequent dismissal seemed to drain this team considerably. The positive is they are extremely young and the freshmen showed a lot of potential this season, despite being inconsistent. Rutgers made steps forward this season in Big Ten play, but with several opportunities to make even more, they tripped over themselves down the stretch of the season.

What’s Next

The season is over and Rutgers finishes with a 14-17 record overall. They won seven league games, the same amount they won the previous two seasons. In a way, ending the season in disappointment shows how much progress was made, because they inspired real hope at times. However, it hurts that this team was so close to making quite a bit more progress than they did. Hopefully, this team can learn from how the season unfolded and come back much improved next year. Plenty to come from On The Banks as the offseason has officially begun.