For those that have followed the Rutgers men’s basketball program for a long time, Friday was an all too familiar roller coaster that led to a sinking feeling inside right before tip-off against Nebraska (6-8; 1-2). With the Scarlet Knights being talked about as an NCAA Tournament bubble team in the national media for the first time since 2006 and RU jumping from an opening line 1 point favorite to 6 point favorite by early afternoon, things were looking too good. And then the other shoe dropped, as Rutgers issued a press release an hour before the game began that captain Geo Baker was out indefinitely with an injured left thumb. It was a massive blow for a team about to play a game they desperately needed to continue positive momentum in what could be a special season. And then game began and Rutgers methodically dismantled a lesser talented Nebraska team that had already beaten Purdue at home this season. Behind a strong defensive effort, relentless crashing of the boards, and excellent passing, Rutgers defeated Nebraska 79-62.
The Cornhuskers led 15-10 seven minutes into the game, as it was clear Rutgers was trying to figure things out without Baker. Out of a TV timeout, Steve Pikiell clearly emphasized a focus on attacking the rim and Paul Mulcahy found Myles Johnson inside for an easy basket. It sparked a game changing 18-1 run as Nebraska went 8 minutes without making a field goal. Defensively, Rutgers limited Nebraska in the run game and forced them to play a halfcourt game, which is not their strength.
After a Paul Mulcahy runner capped the run and extended the lead to 28-16 with 6:12 remaining in the first half, he unfortunately made a freshman mistake on the other end of the floor. He picked up a blocking foul, his second on the next defensive possession and then got called for a technical foul for slamming the basketball on the floor. It was a huge blow, as Mulcahy sat with three fouls. Montez Mathis was already on the bench with two fouls and momentum shifted sides.
Nebraska responded with a 8-0 run to cut the lead to 4 points before a Caleb McConnell layup made it 30-24 with four minutes left in the opening frame. McConnell started the game in Baker’s absence and played within himself most of the night. The bench really stepped in the first half as well, as Mulcahy and Jacob Young made key plays. With the score 34-28 and less than two minutes to play in the first half, Young was fouled from behind the arc and made all three free throws. A McConnell jumper at the buzzer ended the half on a 7-0 run and gave Rutgers a commanding 41-28 lead at the break.
The Scarlet Knights shot an impressive 53% from the floor while holding the Cornhuskers to just 27% in the first half. RU dominated inside as expected with a +8 rebounding margin and 26-12 edge with points in the paint. Myles Johnson led the way with 10 points and 8 rebounds, while Ron Harper Jr., who hit two early three’s, had 8 points and 7 rebounds. Despite Nebraska mixing in a zone at times in the first half, the passing and sharing of the basketball was top notch. They wore the Huskers down on the defensive end with great ball movement and pounding the glass on both ends.
After the break, Rutgers continued to play smart basketball and kept Nebraska from cutting the lead to single digits by not relenting on the boards or the defensive end. With the score 45-32 less than four minutes into the half, Rutgers again took control and extended the lead to 58-38 with 11:25 left in the game. Nebraska was just 3 of 13 from the field, while Rutgers was shooting 57% on 8 of 14 attempts since the break. McConnell continued to play at a high level and was a perfect 6 of 6 shooting for 14 points at this stage in the game.
Soon after Nebraska drew two technical fouls on separate possessions, showing the frustration of getting outworked and outclassed on their home floor. The final score was 79-62 but the game didn’t even feel that close.
The Cornhuskers could never run the way they wanted to, scoring just 6 fast break points in the game. The transition defense was tremendous. They shot just 32% from the floor and only 8 of 31 from three-point range for 26%. Rutgers held them in check all night and never allowed them to make a comeback after falling behind double digits.
On the other end, Rutgers shot a sterling 54% from the floor and dominated the boards on both ends, holding a 48-31 rebounding edge. It led to a 52-24 advantage with points in the paint and a 12-0 edge in second chance points.
Caleb McConnell was tremendous filling in for Baker, as he led the team with 20 points on a perfect 8 of 8 shooting night, as well as 5 assists and 4 rebounds. His poise and feel for the game was excellent, as he didn’t force things and took advantage of opportunities when they were present.
Jacob Young looked like a completely different player from most of the season, as things have finally clicked after a breakout performance on Monday in the victory over Caldwell. Young scored 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting, as well as 5 rebounds and 2 assists. He was much more under control when driving to the rim and his shot was smooth. His defense on Nebraska point guard Cam Mack was strong as well.
Myles Johnson continues to be a consistent force in the interior and he finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He was 9 of 13 from the floor and Nebraska had no answer for him inside. He is also becoming more of a true rim protector on the defensive end and only drew 2 fouls in the game.
Ron Harper Jr. had an up and down game once again, but finished with a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, as well as 3 assists and 2 blocks. His two early three’s help set the tone.
This was an extremely impressive performance from Rutgers on Friday night. The program was only 4-43 on the road since joining the Big Ten and although they were playing potentially the worst team in the conference, they beat them in dominating fashion the way that good teams do. The fact that it came without captain Geo Baker, second on the team in scoring while leading them in assists and the entire conference in steals was a statement for sure. This team has more offensive options by a significant margin than in a very long time. Their continued improvement and buy-in on the defensive end has been the backbone of their progress in the past month. And as has been a staple in the Steve Pikiell era, not many teams attack the boards on both ends of the floor like Rutgers. They had to have this game and they got it, but RU is evolving into a complete team that no one in the Big Ten wants to play.
Up next, Rutgers (11-3; 2-1) hosts no. 21 Penn State (11-2; 1-1) on Tuesday night at the RAC. This is a tremendous opportunity to prove they are for real and a true force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten this season. It will be a defensive battle and again without Baker, but this Rutgers team has shown a lot of toughness the past few games when the season was looking a bit rocky. Five consecutive wins later and coming home to the RAC faithful gives this team a chance to keep the positive momentum moving forward.