Entering Tuesday night’s game at the RAC, Rutgers hadn’t beaten Purdue in eight tries since joining the Big Ten. They lost by 50 points to the Boilermakers at the RAC four years ago and last season Rutgers lost to Purdue by 35 points in West Lafayette. On this night, the Scarlet Knights finally broke through, surviving a valiant comeback attempt by Purdue to win 70-63. It was a total team effort and it was a huge victory in what has been a special season so far.
Rutgers fell behind 5-2 early but settled down, rattling off a game changing 11-0 run to jump out to a lead 13-5. They were forcing Purdue into bad decisions and scoring off of transition offense. Montez Mathis found Ron Harper Jr. on the break for an alley-oop dunk that led to the RAC faithful erupting as Rutgers started the game 5 of 6 shooting.
With a 17-8 lead, the bench played tight, as Paul Mulcahy and Jacob Young each turned it over and there was too much dribbling and not enough passing. Purdue cut the lead to four points before Geo Baker found Young, who then drove baseline and made a crazy athletic move under the basket for an overhead shot that went in and put RU back up 6.
Rutgers led 24-17 before a tremendous defensive set led to Purdue failing to get off a shot, suffering a shot clock violation heading into a media timeout. There was some stoppage of play after two separate foul calls were reviewed close together. Leading 29-19, Purdue was showing its frustration as Isaiah Thompson was called for a Flagrant 1 foul after clocking Mathis down across the chin with his elbow. He converted one of two from the line, followed by McConnell hitting on a tough fadeaway. He was fouled soon after and knocked down two free throws to cap a 9-0 run and put Rutgers in the lead 35-19.
Jahaad Proctor knocked down two huge three-pointers to get Purdue back into the game down 10, as RU was without a field goal for almost three minutes. Myles Johnson and Young hit baskets to put Rutgers up 39-27 at the half. The Scarlet Knights shot 54% from the floor, 3 of 8 from three-point range and 8 of 12 from the foul line in the opening frame.
Defensively, they held Purdue to 41% shooting, although they made 5 of 14 from behind the arc. The Boilermakers had just 1 free throw attempt, which they missed and committed 11 first half turnovers.
The difference in the first half though was Rutgers holding a 14-0 advantage in fast break points and 18-10 with points in the paint. It was the best half this team has played in a Big Ten game this season. Eight of the nine players for Rutgers had scored a basket and dished out an assist. They were playing great team defense and unselfish on offense. Total team effort in the first 20 minutes and it was impressive to watch.
Out of halftime, Ron Harper Jr. scored inside and Yeboah was fouled on a three-point attempt for the second time in the game. He made all three this time, after going 2 of 3 on the attempt in the first half. After Evan Boudreaux converted a three-point play the hard way, he picked up his fourth foul of the game and headed to the bench with Purdue trailing 44-30. The lead soon grew to 17 points with 17 minutes remaining.
Rutgers committed two offensive fouls during a stretch that Purdue was trying to claw back into it, trailing 46-35. Pikiell had Geo, Mulcahy, McConnell and Young in together with Shaq Carter. After Young committed his 5th turnover of the game, Proctor scored on the other end.
With the lead cut to single digits and Rutgers in danger of letting the Boilermakers back into the game, Geo created a shot of thin air with a great dribble move in the corner and knocked down a huge three-pointer with the 3 inches taller Nojel Eastern defending him. RU led 49-37 but soon after let Purdue into the bonus as Proctor made both free throws to cut the lead to 10 points. Soon after, he knocked down another jumper to lead all scorers with 17 points as Rutgers led 49-41 at the under-12 timeout.
The game had really changed once Myles Johnson went to the bench with two fouls. After the timeout, he was back in and Baker drove around a screen for a huge layup to get the crowd back into the game. Johnson picked up his third foul of the game on the other end, all in the second half. He limped off the floor, but it appeared to just be a cramp and he returned later in the game looking fine.
Mathis made another great pass to Carter, who missed but drew the fourth foul of the game on Matt Haarms, forcing the Dutchmen to the bench. Carter made 1 of 2 and Rutgers led 52-43 at the midway point of the second half. A Williams layup cut the lead to 7, but great ball movement on the other end led to McConnell finding Harper Jr. underneath for the answer. However, Williams scored again for Purdue with Johnson still on the bench.
Rutgers was in the bonus as well, making the foul line such an important factor down the stretch. McConnell went to the line and made both, putting Rutgers back up by 9 points with less than 9 minutes to play.
Purdue wisely fed Trevion Williams, who scored, drew the fourth foul on Myles Johnson, and then converted from the line to make it a 56-50 game with seven minutes to play. The Boilermakers had completely changed the way the game was being played in the second half, slowing the game down and attacking the interior offensively.
On the next Rutgers possession, Harper Jr. made the extra pass and found Akwasi Yeboah, who drained a much needed three-pointer. However, Williams continued to dominate and scored on a goaltending call to cut the lead to 7. Credit to Shaq Carter, who attacked Williams on the other end and drew a foul on him, his second, making 1 of 2 from the line.
Boudreaux had missed significant time on the bench with four fouls but hit a big shot contested by McConnell. Yeboah settled for a three-pointer and missed, leading to Pikiell to call a timeout leading 60-54 with 5:40 remaining and Purdue having the ball. RU was just 15 of 24 from the foul line at this stage in the game, while the visitors were 6 of 8. There was little doubt how the two teams shot from the charity stripe down the stretch would come into play.
Out of the timeout, Purdue committed its first turnover in 12 minutes as Geo Baker jumped into the passing lane and stole it. He drew the foul on the break and knocked down both to extend the lead to 8 points. Proctor wouldn’t let Purdue fade, as he scored a huge basket through a double team to make 62-56 before the last media timeout of the game at the 3:48 mark. Rutgers was three minutes without a field goal.
Purdue out of the timeout got a Haarms dunk to cut the lead to four points. After failed possessions from both teams, Baker was called for a foul on Boudreaux after trying to steal it in the corner. He made 1 of 2 as Rutgers led 62-59 with two minutes remaining in the game. McConnell then drew a foul on Haarms, sending him out for the game and he made both to extend the lead to 5.
Out of a Purdue timeout with the RAC faithful on their feet, Williams got a look near the rim, but Johnson held firm, forcing the miss. An official review of the tipped ball out of bounds kept it Purdue’s ball. Williams had the ball pickpocketed by Yeboah on the double team, but Rutgers couldn’t convert as Harper Jr. forced a bad three-point attempt.
Both teams were struggling, as Purdue was without a field goal for over three minutes, Rutgers for over a six minute span. With the Boilermakers down 5 and 42 seconds to play, they came out of another timeout as Thompson took a corner three, but missed. Johnson grabbed the rebound and headed to the foul line, missing both. Purdue got the ball back with 36 seconds to play. Hunter Jr. scored to cut the lead to 64-61 with 30 seconds left. Tensions were rising.
The Scarlet Knights got the ball in the hands of McConnell, who drew the foul and calmly made both to push the lead back top 5 points. Hunter Jr. quickly scored again and after fullcourt pressure, Ron Harper Jr. stepped to the line. He had been a non-factor in the second half, but came through in a big way, making both free throw attempts. Rutgers led 68-63 with 13 seconds to play. Soon after McConnell finished off the game with another pair and the game was over, as Rutgers was victorious 70-63.
The defense was tremendous all night and even though Purdue scored 36 second half points, they only shot 41%, which they finished at the percentage for the game. Rutgers struggled badly from the floor in the second half, only making 33% of its shots, but they made 17 of 24 free throw attempts after halftime. They were 25 of 36 for the game at 69% and amazingly took 26 more attempts than Purdue who were 7 of 10. Rutgers made 10 of its last 12 attempts to seal the victory.
Rutgers was 45% from the floor for the game and shot 5 of 16 from three for 31%, while Purdue was only 6 of 22 from deep for 27%. RU was -10 on the boards and -6 with points in the paint, as the Boilermakers turned it into a war they were winning down low in the second half. However, Rutgers held a big 24-9 advantage with fast break points, which was the difference in the game.
Caleb McConnell was outstanding and made a brilliant 12 of 12 from the free throw line. He finished with a team high 16 points and 7 rebounds, coming through down the stretch from the charity stripe. Akwasi Yeboah, Geo Baker, and Ron Harper Jr, all added 10 points for a balanced scoring attack. Johnson finished with 7 points and 7 rebounds after struggling in the second half with foul trouble. Montez Mathis had 9 points and played fantastic defense. He held Purdue’s best shooter, Sasha Stefanovic to 0 points on 0-4 from three-point range.
Purdue was led by Jahaad Proctor (19 points, 4 assists) and Trevion Williams (17 points, 13 rebounds), as both players kept their team in the game for long stretches.
It was a tense finish, but the reality is after a strong first half and good defense the entire game, Rutgers was still able to win by 7 against a team they never beat previously in Big Ten play. Purdue led the league in scoring defense and Rutgers scored 10 more than the average they allow. Both are remarkable feats in a season full of them. They are now 16-5 overall and and an amazing 7-3 at the midpoint of conference play. They sit a half of game out first place behind Illinois and Michigan State. They are 15-0 at the RAC and this team delighted a fifth consecutive sell out crowd once again on Tuesday night.
Up next, Rutgers heads to Madison Square Garden to face Michigan on Saturday. It’s a tremendous opportunity to pick up a Quad 1 and Big Ten win and on a neutral floor. The Wolverines (12-8; 3-6) won at Nebraska tonight and will be ready to play this weekend. It should be a fun environment and one in which all eyes will be on ranked Rutgers, the story of college basketball this season.
Paying tribute to a legend with Kobe Bryant inspired warmups for tonight’s game pic.twitter.com/Lhv3bDqIDp— Rutgers Basketball (@RutgersMBB) January 29, 2020