After a slow start against NEC favorite Fairleigh Dickinson on Friday night inside an empty RAC, no. 24 Rutgers relied on its veteran stars en route to a 2-0 start to the season. FDU played hard and landed a few punches on the Scarlet Knights, but ultimately they were a threat from afar as RU won comfortably 96-75.
Head coach Steve Pikiell said on the victory, “I knew coming in this would be real tough. (Jahlil) Jenkins (16 points on 6 of 15 shooting) can play and I though Jacob Young did a really good job, Montez guarded him, he’s a real crafty guard. I think he’s got thirteen hundred points already.” He continued, “The second half especially where we rebounded the ball well and got the ball up the floor and played better defense in stretches. So gotta get better, keep figuring out our lineup to add substitutions. That is what we kind of have to do without having any scrimmage games or any of that to kind of work through, but happy with the guys. Good win. Quick turnaround now for a really good Hofstra team.”
FDU jumped out to a 26-19 lead with 8:45 to play in the first half and then Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young took over the game. They lead Rutgers on a game changing 21-2 run and combined for 17 points during that stretch. The Scarlet Knights went into halftime with a commanding 47-33 lead and while FDU never went away for good, trailing by 11 midway through the second half, they never relinquished control of the game. Rutgers responded with a 12-0 run to put the game away and led by as much as 26 points late.
Rutgers shot much better from three-point range in this game, making 7 of 19 shots from behind the arc for 37%. Overall, they shot 57% from the floor and held FDU to 43% shooting. Struggles continued from the foul line, as RU made 15 of 25 for 60% from the charity stripe.
The Scarlet Knights committed 15 turnovers in the game, but cleaned things up in the second half after giving it away 10 times in the first half. RU was +11 on the boards, held a 56-38 edge with points in the paint, were +7 in second chance points and held a commanding 30-3 advantage with fast break points.
Ron Harper Jr. played like an all-conference player for the second straight game, finishing with a career high 30 points on 11 of 16 shooting, 5 of 9 from three-point range, as well as 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. For a second straight game, he led the team with a +/- of 26. In regard to his focus, as well as the teams at the start of the game, Harper Jr. said “With no fans being here, we have to bring our own energy onto the court. I feel like our bench and coaches do a great job of doing that for us. The players on the court feed off of it. We are in an arena that usually holds 8,000 people. It’s a weird time and something to adjust to. We are doing fine and going to keep getting better.”
Jacob Young was fantastic in the absence of Geo Baker, showcasing his development as a complete player. He scored 24 points on 11 of 17 from the floor, as well as 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 4 steals. While Young had some ball control issues with 5 turnovers, he made very good decisions and gave Rutgers a strong hand in running the offense.
Pikiell said of the duo’s performances, “They gave us great energy, you know Ron has become a tough matchup and Jacob too when he’s playing defense and playing with that great energy, he’s really tough to guard. He’s as fast as there is, but I really like what he’s doing on the defensive end. I’m real pleased, he’s put a lot of time in and you obviously see his improvements and he’s guarding guys too and he’s guarding them 94 feet. Ron obviously we need that from him every night. I wish we can get that every night, but tonight he was special. He made threes, he could post up, he could do a lot of things. He’s a tough guy to guard and we need that especially without Geo being in uniform.”
Montez Mathis has played a strong supporting role in both wins and tonight chipped in with 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting, as well as 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. Pikiell said he spoke with Mathis at the break, explaining “I challenged him at halftime and I really thought he played tremendous defense in the second half, really made it hard on Jenkins and (Brandon) Rush is a good guard too. I thought Montez did a really good job of kind of settling down on that end of the floor and giving us really good minutes.” Pikiell continued, “He’s a good defender, he’s a veteran guy, I trust Montez, and he had a really good offseason too. He’s in great shape conditioning wise during this pandemic and did a good job with his body. We need him to continue to keep growing, he’s a better shooter this year, he’s a better ball handler, so excited about him and need him to be really good.”
Mathis added “He got on me. My defense was bad in the first half. I wasn’t locked in on my matchup. I just took it personal and had a much better second half.”
Although Paul Mulcahy only had 2 points on an 0 of 4 shooting night from the floor, he had a +/- rating of 20, second best on the team. His ability to contribute in other ways aside from scoring is essential to this team and he finished with 8 rebounds, 4 assists to just 1 turnover and 2 blocks.
Myles Johnson continued to be a steady presence in the paint, finishing with 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting, while adding 4 boards, 4 blocks and 2 steals.
In regard to the freshmen, Cliff Omoruyi had a quiet night against the veteran bigs of FDU, finishing with 5 points, 3 rebounds and a blocked shot. However, Mawot Mag had a much better second game compared to his debut. He showed off his potential with 6 points on 3 of 4 from the floor, as well as 5 rebounds, a blocked shot and solid defense. He forced an over the back call as soon as he entered the game in the first half, then continued to demonstrate his steady demeanor and high work rate. Dean Reiber also played with some juice in spots, finishing with 2 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal.
Pikiell said, “Mawot keeps growing, he’s like one of those guys, keeps plugging away, early in the gym and he’s going to be a really good defender for us too. I think you saw the improvement from the first game to the second game too. I think he was a little nervous in the first game and he’ll get more and more confident here with playing time. He can really shoot the ball too. I’m real pleased and on the defensive end of the floor, he can guard multiple positions and he kind of takes that as a challenge.” He continued, “Real pleased with all of our freshmen. I think Dean Reiber with some good minutes the other night and again tonight. Oskar will get his chance.”
Rutgers opened the season with back to back games of scoring 85 or more points for the first time since 2018. They’ll play a third game in five days on Sunday against Hofstra at 4 p.m. ET airing on BTN. As for the challenge, Jacob Young said, “I’ve been doing this all my life. This is just something we do. It’s like an AAU Tournament or going back to high school again. It’s not really a fatigue issue. We have to get in, get some rest and get the proper treatment. We’ll be prepared for Sunday.”
- Pikiell was asked about the status of Geo Baker and said “He’s in a boot now. He was on the crutches the other day, so now it’s a boot. Not a whole lot to report, he’s not going to play anytime soon. Just got to keep him in Rich’s (Campbell) room, the training room, get as much treatment as he can, but the boot will be on for a little here.”
The hope was that Geo could return for the Syracuse game on December 8, but even that target seems doubtful. His impact on this team is far more than what is read from a stat sheet. His leadership is immeasurable and his poise on the court gives this team a balance that wasn’t there during the first part of the game tonight. They looked a bit lost at the end of the shot clock during a few halfcourt possessions. While Harper Jr. and Young took over, it was a good lesson for them that they cannot afford a slow start against better competition.
- Sacred Heart reportedly shut down their program on Friday, cancelling upcoming games with Fairfield and Stony Brook. Pikiell was asked about the situation after the game, stating “We have the best doctors and medical protocol in the country. I know they tested a bunch of times before we played them, and everyone was negative. Everybody was great when they came here, and they tested for consecutive days.”