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No. 11 Rutgers humbled in first loss of the season

The basketball gods preached to the Scarlet Knights on Wednesday night. Hopefully, they were listening.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Two days after Rutgers earned the program’s highest national ranking since the legendary 1976 Final Four team, the ship continued on course into the second half against Ohio State. After leading 38-28 at the half in which five different players made three-pointers and team basketball was present on both ends of the court, the Buckeyes came out of the locker room ready.

After two quick baskets by Kyle Young and a turnover by Rutgers, Young grabbed an offensive rebound and was about to score again before Montez Mathis blocked his shot and grabbed his own rebound while drawing a foul. On the next possession, Ron Harper Jr. scored, which started 10-0 run that included two three-pointers from the junior that gave the Scarlet Knights a commanding 48-32 lead with just under 16 minutes remaining.

Life was good for Rutgers basketball, as good as it had been in decades. And then as if James Naismith himself came down from the heavens to stomp on the court himself, this team lost their mojo and lost for the first time this season as OSU outscored them 48-20 the rest of the way.

“Credit to Ohio State. They’re really good for a reason,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell.

The Buckeyes battled back steadily but RU still held a 59-51 lead after Jacob Young found Myles Johnson for a dunk with 9:14 left in the game. The next Rutgers field goal didn’t come until only 27 seconds were left to play when Mathis hit a three with the issue no longer in doubt.

Trouble started right after Johnson’s dunk, as he picked up his 5th foul of the game on the next defensive possession and his frustrating night was done. There is no doubt there were questionable calls in the game and more than one of Johnson’s foul calls appeared to be nothing more than his height advantage being counted against him. The Buckeyes don’t have any players taller than 6’8”, but they used it to their advantage by attacking Johnson early forcing contact and it got him in foul trouble. It plagued Johnson all night and he finished with just 2 points, 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 15 minutes.

“Obviously Myles has been playing really good and to only have him on the court for 15 minutes without Cliff is not a good thing,” Pikiell said. ”But those are the obstacles. We’ve got to figure it out.”

Soon after with Rutgers holding onto a 59-55 lead with 7:29 remaining, Young went up for a dunk and fell hard on the court. He was on the floor in obvious pain for several minutes before getting up and appearing to be reaching for his back. Young’s night was over with 12 points, 5 assists and 3 turnovers.

Rutgers didn’t recover after losing the best offensive creator on the team, becoming stagnant in the halfcourt and they lacked ball movement and energy.

Geo Baker said, “We just got taken out of our offense a little. I really wasn’t worried about the calls. I just think we got taken out of our offense. We hit a little bit of adversity. As a veteran team, we have to be better than that.”

It also seemed the players were shaken by the loss of Young and never recovered mentally or emotionally.

Pikiell was asked about Young’s status after the game and said “he is in the doctor’s office right now” and “he fell really hard and was in a lot of pain. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed.”

The most egregious mistake on Wednesday night wasn’t made by a zebra with a whistle. With the game tied at 61 and just over four minutes remaining, a technical foul was called against Rutgers after Baker had a conteste layup. Although it was initially said on television that it was called against Steve Pikiell, it was clarified later by the program that it actually was called against the Rutgers bench. This means someone either said or gestured something that caught the attention of the officials, which they took objection to. That’s an inexcusable mistake and after Duane Washington Jr. made both free throws, E.J. Liddell knocked down a jumper and the Buckeyes never looked back en route to an 80-68 victory.

It didn’t make sense that Pikiell, who has never received a technical in his five seasons at Rutgers, would make such a careless mistake in such a crucial situation. Whoever did let their team down and you can bet Pikiell will use it as a teaching point moving forward.

For those that want to blame the officials for the loss, keep in mind Rutgers was called for 21 fouls in the game compared to 20 for Ohio State. The Buckeyes two leading scorers on the night, Duane Washington Jr. and E.J Liddell, both finished with four fouls. OSU did attempt 12 more free throws, but held a 12-4 margin over the final 2:20 of the game as Rutgers was fouling in desperation mode.

After the game, Pikiell was asked about the officiating and said “I just have to do a better job. That’s it. They do a great job.”

Baker explained, “You get emotional in this game, and I think we all got a little emotional. I feel like we let up a lead, which as a veteran team, we shouldn’t be doing. I don’t feel like the refs really affected the game that much. We just got to do better as a team. We let the lead go. That’s on us.”

Although Rutgers went 10 of 25 from three-point range, they were just 3 of 12 in the second half while shooting only 35.7% from the floor overall after halftime. They also were only 7 of 13 from the foul line after the break. Baker himself was held scoreless and missed all five shot attempts in the second half after scoring 8 points in the first half. The Scarlet Knights were led again by Harper Jr., who finished with 20 points on 40% shooting and 6 rebounds.

Another major reason for the loss was that Ohio State held a 45-25 advantage on the boards and that’s something this team should never let happen. Yes, Johnson, the team’s leading rebounder, was hampered by foul trouble and fellow big man Cliff Omoruyi was out, but Rutgers is a much better team on the glass as a whole than they showed in this game.

After an impressive 6-0 start and a strong 25 minutes on Wednesday on the road, Rutgers played its worst stretch of the season. They stopped attacking and being aggressive, which is how they thrive. They didn’t defend or rebound.

Every team faces adversity and how this team responds is the most important thing moving forward. It is good timing that the players will be getting a holiday break before the next game at home against Purdue on Tuesday, December 29.

Baker said getting rest over the next few days that it is “extremely valuable.” He continued, “We’re a little banged up, we’ll get treatment. But I also think it’s going to be really good for us mentally. Be able to watch film, learn from a loss. Our team was extremely confident coming in. I feel like guys are going to be more willing to watch our mistakes and learn from it and just get better.”

One obvious concern now is depth. With Mawot Mag still out with a sprained ankle and Omoruyi sidelined with a sprained knee, Rutgers came into this game without two players from its eight man rotation. If Young misses any time, this team will be extremely thin. It very well could just be what it looked like though, a bad fall that will take a few days to shake and will leave Young bruised and sore. With six days before the next game, it’s not unrealistic to think he will be ready. Let’s hope it’s that and nothing serious.

Pikiell was asked about Omoruyi’s recovery after the game and said, “He hasn’t practiced or done anything like that. He’s been with (trainer) Rich (Campbell). So he’s got to do a great job. I am thankful we have some days off here. Hopefully, his knee will continue to improve but he’s not ready to get back on the court. We will be off now for a little bit and, hopefully, he will feel a lot better when he comes back.”

Every great team has to overcome adversity at points during the season. Last year’s Big Ten co-champs and no. 1 seed, Wisconsin, started conference play with a 5-5 record and saw starter Kobe King quit the team during that stretch. They stuck together and won their last 8 games of the season before the Big Ten Tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19. The Badgers played a six man rotation to beat Indiana in the regular season finale to clinch the top spot in the league.

“I wouldn’t say the guys are too down right now, we’re talking about bouncing back,” Baker said. “Being a good team is about the bounce-back. That’s how we are feeling right now. I think it humbled us a little bit.”

Rutgers has a chance to have a special season and there should be little doubt that if they do, they’ll look back on this loss two days before Christmas as key reason for making them better. Ohio State will visit the RAC on January 9 and you can bet this team will be ready.