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Rutgers opens season with 86-63 victory over Sacred Heart

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Ron Harper Jr. led the way, while Paul Mulcahy, Montez Mathis and Cliff Omoruyi had big games as well.

Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics

The opening night of the most anticipated season in decades amidst a global pandemic felt normal and very strange all in the same game. Rutgers struggled to get going offensively early on, took a commanding lead and was able to cruise to a 86-63 victory over a Sacred Heart team that never gave up.

It was scoreless for almost three minutes into the season before Montez Mathis dunked off a fast break to give Rutgers its first points of the season. Surprise starter Cliff Omoruyi scored for the first time in his collegiate career, making 1 of 2 from the free throw line, Ron Harper Jr. made his first basket and Geo Baker split his free throw attempts to give the Scarlet Knights a 6-0 lead with 15:26 left in the first half.

Sacred Heart responded with three three-pointers to cut the Rutgers lead to 12-11 midway through the opening frame. RU then responded with a 12-2 run spurred by 6 points from Harper Jr., who was settling into the leading role nicely. SHU got within 6 at 25-19, but the Scarlet Knights closed out the half on a 15-4 run to lead 40-25 at the break.

Rutgers shot 51% from the floor in the opening frame while holding Sacred Heart to just 29%. Harper Jr. led the way with 12 points and 5 rebounds. Paul Mulcahy displayed his development and versatility, playing multiple positions while putting up 8 points, 4 assists and 2 steals in the first half. Omoruyi was a force inside and swapped 9 boards in his first half on the banks.

The only concern was Geo Baker, who attempted just 1 shot and left late in the half after appearing to tweak his ankle.

He did not return in the second half, which makes sense even if it’s a minor injury. Here is Baker coming back on the floor for the second half on crutches.

Rutgers fans became nauseous hours before even eating Thanksgiving dinner. Hopefully, it’s not a major issue and Baker doesn’t miss significant time. I’ll report any updates after the postgame press conference with head coach Steve Pikiell.

The second half doubled as a dunk party for Omoruyi, who had several highlight reel slams to spur Rutgers to a 50-30 lead just three minutes after the break. Sacred Heart never got closer than 15 points the rest of the way.

Rutgers tried out different lineups and even pressed late in the second half as Pikiell was getting the rust out of his team. It wasn’t a performance that will inspire hope that the shooting has improved, as RU shot 1 of 8 from three-point range and were just 5 of 15 from the free throw line. However, they did shoot 61% from the floor overall after dominating with points in the paint, holding a 72-32 advantage. They also held Sacred Heart to just 37% shooting, but the Pioneers almost equaled that mark from behind the arc, making 9 of 25 from three-point range. On the boards, Rutgers were +15 and held a commanding 26-4 advantage on fast break points. Even without Baker, RU took care of the basketball by committing just 9 turnovers, while SHU had 14. The Scarlet Knights shared the basketball well too, dishing out 23 assists on 40 made field goals.

Harper Jr. performed well in a starring role, finishing with a game high 18 points on 50% shooting from the floor, along with 10 rebounds and 2 assists. He asserted himself even when Baker was on the floor at the start, which is a positive sign that his mindset is more aggressive after being passive at times last season. His +/- of 28 was the best on either team.

Montez Mathis had some strong dunks and appeared to warrant the offseason praise Pikiell gave him, finishing with 17 points on 8 of 15 shooting while adding 3 assists and 3 steals.

Mulcahy looked much improved and was much more assertive in the season opener compared to last season. He finished with a career high 15 points on a perfect 7 of 7 shooting night. His passing skills were on full display, as he dished out a career high 7 assists and committed just 1 turnover. He added 4 boards and 2 steals. His ability to play different positions and his unselfishness is infectious for this team. If he can continue to look for his shot the way he did tonight it will be a big step forward for him.

Omoruyi’s debut was impressive and his athleticism was through the roof. He established control of the glass from the opening tip, giving Rutgers a firm grip of the paint. He finished with a double-double in his first career game at Rutgers with 14 points and 11 rebounds. He wasn’t challenged by Sacred Heart like he will be against better competition, but it was a very encouraging debut.

Jacob Young played the role of distributor, dishing out 8 assists while only committing 2 turnovers and adding 5 points and 2 steals. Myles Johnson was efficient off the bench, finishing with 10 points on 5 of 5 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

Overall, it was a good start to the season but obviously the health of Geo Baker hangs over the RAC like a thick, black cloud. The injury didn’t appear too serious but it’s also important for him to get in the flow of the season and not miss significant time. Steve Pikiell said that Geo Baker suffered a “bad ankle sprain”. He cited faith in trainer Rich Campbell to do as good a job possible in his recovery. His status is unknown for now but it seems unlikely he’ll play Friday vs. FDU.

The important thing after this win is that Rutgers handles the quick turnaround time as they host FDU in less than 48 hours on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET on BTN, followed by Hofstra with even less recovery time after that. The Scarlet Knights are 1-0 and the season has finally begun!

Four Thoughts