It was a big game atmosphere at Madison Square Garden between no. 25 Rutgers and Michigan on Saturday afternoon. The crowd was pro Rutgers and it produced an electricity during the game that was postseason worthy. Unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights struggled mightily on the offensive end and although they fought Michigan to the bitter end, they lost an important game 69-63.
Rutgers jumped out to a 12-7 lead behind two three-pointers from Akwasi Yeboah, but Michigan responded with three makes from behind the arc of its own that keyed a 17-2 run. The Wolverines led 24-14 before Ron Harper Jr. rimmed in a three for the first Rutgers field goal in seven minutes. The size of Michigan inside was causing problems for the Scarlet Knights, who started the game 3 of 20 from two-point range.
Foul trouble was an issue inside, as Shaq Carter soon after picked up his third foul and Myles Johnson was already playing with two fouls. However, this team has no quit and rattled off a 17-8 run before Brandon Johns Jr. scored off a missed free throw at the buzzer to send Michigan into the locker room leading 37-34. He was fantastic for the Wolverines and led all scorers with 15 points at the break. Montez Mathis kept Rutgers in the game with 9 points down the stretch of the opening frame with two three-pointers as well as a basket and free throw off an offensive rebound.
Michigan was having a great offensive game, shooting 6 of 11 from behind the arc and 52% from the floor, while holding Rutgers to a miserable 33% from the floor. Michigan was killing Rutgers on screens, as they were over hedging and allowing easy baskets at the rim. However, RU only trailed by 3 points and wasn’t going away. While the Wolverines had to feel good about their first half performance, it was probably equally frustrating the Scarlet Knights were clawing at their heels. RU had a +3 advantage on turnover margin and with rebounds, including a 10-3 edge on the offensive glass that resulted in a 7-0 advantage in second chance points.
Out of the break, Montez Mathis continued to shine and play his best game of the season. He scored two baskets in transition, one off a defensive rebound and another off a steal. While Rutgers continued to miss shots, starting the half 2 of 9 from the floor, the defense had clamped down and Michigan missed its first 6 shots in the second half. Rutgers led 38-37 at the first media timeout since halftime at the 15:51 mark, but it felt like a missed opportunity to only be up 1 after holding Michigan scoreless for that long.
Out of the timeout, Michigan responded with two quick baskets as Rutgers committed two quick turnovers after having just three in the entire first half. Jon Teske then attacked the rim and drew the third foul of the game on Myles Johnson with 14:21 remaining. He made both to make it 43-38 Michigan before Brandon Johns buried a three-pointer. Paul Mulcahy scored his first basket on the other end. Zavier Simpson and Jacob Young then traded baskets and it was 48-42 with just over 12 minutes left in the game.
Michigan blew the game open behind the three-point line and led 60-48 before Rutgers rattled off a 6-0 run behind Myles Johnson with six minutes to play. However, Eli Brooks was wide open in transition on the wing and buried a three-pointer that was huge. It seemed like Rutgers was on its way to a double digit defeat, but this team continued to show great resolve. The defense stepped up and gave them a chance in the end.
Neither team was able to score for several minutes before Yeboah scored on a putback to make it 63-56 with 3:11 to play. Young then came off the bench after doing a good job defensively on Simpson in the game. He forced a turnover and a McConnell layup in transition cut the lead to 5. Rutgers got a stop on the other end and Pikiell called timeout with 1:51 to play and seven seconds remaining on the shot clock. They inbounded to Young on the block who missed, but Johnson got the rebound and drew the foul. However, he was not the guy you wanted on the line in that situation and he missed both.
Young continued to cause problems for Simpson and Johnson swatted his shot away with 1 second left on the shot clock and 1:18 left in the game. The inbounds pass after a timeout was blocked by Harper Jr. and Rutgers had the ball back. Unfortunately, Harper took a bad three. They got yet another defensive stop but Baker missed another from behind the arc. Still, Rutgers still had a chance to win as Young hit a jumper with 23 second left to play. He soon after fouled Simpson, who is just a 59% free throw shooter. He made both. Baker went down the floor and hit a NBA range three for his first basket of the game to make it 65-63. They fouled Wagner with 14.9 seconds, who made both as well. Rutgers turned it over on the next possession and that was all she wrote, as Michigan survived 69-63.
It was a valiant effort and comeback, led of course by strong defense down the stretch, but ultimately Rutgers couldn’t score when they needed to and lost to a talented but vulnerable Michigan team. Rutgers dominated on the glass in a big way with 21 offensive rebounds, but they couldn’t take advantage of it as much as they need to in order to win. They had at least two dozen more shot attempts than Michigan, but it didn’t result in a scoring burst it should have. That and having no answer for Brandon Johns Jr., who led all scorers with 20 points and made big shot after big shot for Michigan. RU did a great job clamping down and fighting their way back into the game at the end, but the defense wasn’t at the level it needed to be the entire game. The over hedging and trouble with rolls off of ball screens was a major issue. The Wolverines shot 47% from three-point range (9-21) and hit dagger after dagger whenever Rutgers was closing in. Ball movement of Michigan and slow rotations of Rutgers were the difference.
Montez Mathis was terrific on both ends of the floor and made some big shots to keep Rutgers in the game, scoring a team high 17 points, as well as 8 rebounds and 2 steals. Akwasi Yeboah, Caleb McConnell, and Jacob Young played well also and made big plays, all of whom finished with 10 points. Yeboah also had 7 rebounds, and Young had 5 boards and 4 steals. However, Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. had just 3 points each and combined to shoot just 2 of 19 from the floor. Baker did have 6 boards, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.
As a team, Rutgers shot a miserable 32.5% shooting for the game and 25% from three. After going 5 of 11 from deep in the first half, they were a putrid 1 of 16 from three in the second half. Michigan shot 47.8% overall and were 16 of 24 from the foul line. Rutgers was just 3 of 5 from the charity stripe. While RU held a 36-26 edge with points in the paint, they lost the battle in transition, as Michigan held a 16-10 advantage with fast break points.
Rutgers lost a game they could have won if only they executed better on the offensive end, despite playing subpar defensively for their own standards. I think that’s actually encouraging to a degree, as Rutgers didn’t play anywhere near its best and still had a chance to win in the closing seconds. This team is such a hard out even when they don’t play well and that’s a credit to the coaching staff and players. That’s a winning culture.
The starting five of Michigan (13-8; 4-6) is a top half of the conference talent wise even without Isaiah Livers and it was a huge win for them. Even so, there are obvious adjustments that Rutgers can make in order to even the season series when these two teams meet at the RAC in a couple of weeks. For Rutgers to even be in the game with its two leading scorers having awful nights speaks to the depth and heart of this team. I also believe this loss could serve Rutgers well down the stretch this season and in postseason play, as it was a big time environment in which they need to learn how to win in.
Up next, Rutgers (16-6; 7-4) heads to Maryland this Tuesday in what will be a difficult road contest. The Scarlet Knights will need to raise their level of play to win games down the stretch of what has still been a special season so far. Nothing will come easy, but Rutgers needs to let this loss go and focus on giving the Terps all they can handle on Tuesday. Learning how to win big games away from the RAC is the obvious next development step for this team.