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Rutgers falls to Illinois 54-51 in hard fought defensive battle

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It was tied with two minutes left in the game, but the Scarlet Knights couldn’t pull off the upset

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The six game winning streak for Rutgers is now over after suffering a tough 3 point loss on the road to a talented Illinois team. As expected, it was a defensive battle and hard fought game by both sides, but the difference was rebounding and free throws. Usually a strength, Rutgers failed to assert control on the glass with leading rebounder Myles Johnson battling foul trouble the entire afternoon. Illinois (12-5; 4-2) escaped with a 54-51 victory, but Rutgers showed a lot of character and fight despite the loss.

Akwasi Yeboah knocked down a three-pointer four minutes into the game, giving Rutgers a 10-4 lead early on. From there, it was a defensive grind, as both teams went long stretches without scoring. As expected the battle inside was going to decide this game. Myles Johnson picked up two fouls and headed to the bench early on in the first half, but Rutgers continued to play tremendously on the defensive end. They were trapping, putting great pressure on the ball handlers and forcing Illinois to take shots that were out of their offense.

Even so with Johnson out, a Kipper Nichols jumper gave Illinois a 15-12 lead with less than 8 minutes remaining in the opening frame. The Scarlet Knights were struggling to get much going on the offensive end as well, as Illinois was doing much of the same to them. However, the backcourt duo off the bench sparked Rutgers once again, as Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young each scored a basket to regain the lead. A Young layup soon after gave Rutgers a 20-16 lead with just over 3 minutes left in the first half.

Illinois was able to cut the lead to 3 at the half, despite going almost 8 minutes without a field goal. Rutgers held them to an amazing 19% from the field in the first half, including 0 for 7 from three-point range. RU wasn’t a lot better though, making just 33% of its shots and took too many three’s, making just 2 of 12 from behind the arc. Even though Rutgers had a -3 turnover margin after committing 9, they held a 14-8 edge with points in the paint, which was the difference in the game. On the boards, RU was +1 and credit to Mamadou Doucoure, who grabbed 6 first half rebounds off the bench in Johnson’s absence.

It was a terrible start to the second half for Rutgers, as Illinois grabbed an offensive rebound on it’s first possession and found Ayo Dosunmu, who had just two first half points and hit the first three of the game for the hosts. Soon after, Johnson foolishly fouled near midcourt getting back on defense and went to the bench with 3 fouls just a minute into the second half. Pikiell called timeout at the 17:21 mark after Ayo made 1 of 2 free throws after drawing a foul on Harper Jr., his second in the game. The refs were letting both teams play in the first half and it was no surprise the second half would be even more physical. However, the refs tighted things up and Rutgers was slow to adjust.

Pikiell called a play for Caleb McConnell, who made a difficult contested fadeaway for his first points of the game. It sparked Rutgers, as soon after they doubled Giorgi and Shaq Carter blocked him. Then Young found Harper Jr. wide open at the top of the arc for a huge three-pointer. After a stop on the defensive end, Young made a great bounce pass in transition to Harper Jr., who was fouled at the rim. Unfortunately he missed both, and Rutgers was just 1 of 6 from the line at this point in the game.

The Scarlet Knights continued to frustrate Illinois, who were in the middle of missing 11 straight shots, and Harper Jr. redeemed himself by making two free throws soon after his misses. The lead was 28-22 with 14:34 to play.

The drought continued for the Illini, who were mired in a stretch of missing 20 of 21 shots before Ayo hit a jumper to cut the lead to 4. Rutgers hadn’t made a field goal in almost 3 minutes. Illinois started running off of defensive stops and tied the game with 12:19 off consecutive layups and Pikiell called a timeout. The home crowd was on their feet and the dogfight was peaking.

Jacob Young hit a monster three-pointer from NBA distance to give Rutgers a 3 point lead. It didn’t last for long, as Illinois went on a 6-0 run to lead 34-31 with 9 minutes left in the game. The Scarlet Knights were stuck in a 1 of 9 shooting slump. Young broke it on the best possession in a long time, as he spurred ball movement and hit a contested three with the shot clock running out.

Giorgi converted a three point play the hard way on the next Illini possession. After the TV timeout, Rutgers called Johnson’s number and he made his first basket of the game. After a defensive stop, they found Johnson once again for a dunk and Illinois called a timeout, trailing 38-37 with 6:31 remaining. However a Feliz layup and then a Alan Griffin three after a Mathis miss in transition gave Illinois a 4 point lead.

McConnell stepped up in a big way at this stage, grabbing his own offensive rebound and laying it in with 7-footer Kofi Cockburn defending the rim. He the grabbed the defensive rebound on the other end, only to find Young in the corner for a massive three to give Rutgers a 1 point lead. After the Illini took it back on a Cockburn basket, Montez Mathis then hit a monster three as the Scarlet Knights led 46-44 with just over 3 minutes left in the game. Feliz tied it soon after and it was a tie game with 2 minutes remaining.

Out of the Illini timeout, Mulcahy had the ball in his hands, but he couldn’t create anything and the ball went off Myles Johnson’s foot on a bad pass from the freshman. Ayo was fouled by Harper Jr, his fourth, on the next Illinois possession and he made both. It was 48-46 with 1:31 to play. Young had the ball at the top of the key, but on his drive Johnson was called for a questionable offensive foul on a screen.

Illinois missed a three but Giorgi grabbed a massive offensive rebound. Ayo drove and Harper Jr. was called for goaltending off his layup. It was a very close call but seemed like the right one. Rutgers got a good look on the next possession, but Young missed the layup and Ayo made both free throws to put the lead at 6. The Scarlet Knights kept battling and off a loose ball, Young made a huge three to keep hope alive with Rutgers down 52-49 with 21.4 seconds remaining. Ayo hit both foul shots soon after to lead by 5. A late Yeboah layup cut the lead to 3 but that was it. Illinois won a meat grinder of a game, 54-51.

The difference in the game was Illinois winning the battle on the boards, as Rutgers was outrebounded for just the second time all season. 7’0” freshman Kofi Cockburn dominated inside for the Illini as he grabbed 17 rebounds and the hosts produced a 48-42 advantage in the game. The difference was on the offensive glass as the Illini held a decisive 16-10 edge that resulted in a 13-12 advantage in second chance points and 24-22 edge in points in the paint. That’s not a significant margin for either, but it was just enough a difference the 3 point loss and both are areas that Rutgers usually outplays opponents in.

It’s a hard pill to swallow for Rutgers who held Illinois to just 29% shooting in the game, but they only made 34% on the day. They also had a solid day from behind the arc, making 8 of 23 shots for 35%, while holding the Illini to just 2 of 14.

The thing that hurt Rutgers the most in this game was Myles Johnson only playing 13 minutes due to foul trouble the entire day. He finished with just 4 points and 2 rebounds. Cockburn was a big factor for Illinois without having to contend with Johnson, finishing with 11 points, 17 boards, and 2 blocks. His presence on the defensive end made it difficult on Rutgers in the paint without Johnson as an option.

Ayo Dosunmu led all scorers with 18 points, with all but 2 coming from a huge second half effort.

The discrepancy at the free throw line was a major factor as well, as the Illini made 16 of 19 while Rutgers was just 3 of 8.

Jacob Young played really well for the fourth straight game and led Rutgers with 16 points on 6 of 14 shooting, but 4 of 7 from three-point range. He made some big shots on a day no one else was for Rutgers and kept them in the game. No other player scored in double digits, as Ron Harper Jr. finished with 9 on 3 of 9 shooting. He added 5 rebounds, but committed 5 turnovers and 4 fouls in the game. Akwasi Yeboah added 8 points and 6 rebounds, but was just 3 of 10 from the floor. Caleb McConnell also struggled shooting just 2 of 8 for 4 points, but he contributed in other way, grabbing 7 rebounds along with 3 assists and 2 steals. Montez Mathis was just 2 of 9 shooting, finishing with 5 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists.

The defensive effort of Rutgers was superb and the fact that they were as close to stealing a victory as they were is actually impressive. Without Baker and Johnson a non-factor, this team still almost found a way to win. Expectations need to be kept in check, as this was a difficult matchup on the road against a top half Big Ten team, but Rutgers proved they can never be counted out in a conference game anymore. That fact alone shows the major progress already made this season.

Up next, Rutgers (12-4; 3-2) returns home for a massive two game homestand next week. They’ll host Indiana (13-3; 3-2) on Wednesday night and Minnesota (8-7; 2-3) on Sunday. They’ll likely be favored in both games and it’s hugely important that the Scarlet Knights hold serve at the RAC as they continue to try and make this a special season. Saturday’s loss is frustrating in the sense that the game was tied with 2 minutes to play, but everything that Rutgers is playing for absolutely is still on the table. Win both at the RAC this coming week and this team is still very much on track to ending the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any high major program in the country.

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