Rutgers was back at the RAC on Saturday in a must win game against Illinois to keep its NCAA Tournament chances alive. Illinois was without its best player, Ayo Dosunmu, who hurt his knee in the last game. It was obviously a blow for the Illini, but similar to what Rutgers dealt with in the first meeting that was a 3 point loss, as Geo Baker missed it due to injury as well. It was a nip and tuck affair until midway through the second half when Rutgers dominated on both ends of the floor. They ended the game on a 29-15 run and defeated no. 22 Illinois 72-57. It was the third ranked win of the season for Rutgers, the first time the program has accomplished that feat in 18 years.
It was a back and forth battle between both sides the entire first half, which wasn’t surprising as they are similar teams in how they perform on offense and defense. However, it was a much better brand of basketball as opposed to the first meeting, which was a rockfight with not much shot making. On this day, Rutgers did a good job moving the basketball in the first half after Steve Pikiell shook things up with the lineup. He called on Geo Baker and Shaq Carter to start the game, while sitting Caleb McConnell and Myles Johnson. In addition, he played a smaller lineup as the first half progressed, allowing Rutgers to get penetration and good looks at the basket.
Defensively, Rutgers continued to have no answers for freshman center Kofi Cockburn in the early going. He was able to take advantage of the smaller lineup and he continued to be a monster on the boards. He had 8 points on 4 of 9 shooting and 8 rebounds. The only way he was slowed was on the free throw line, as he missed all 4 foul shots in the opening frame.
Ron Harper Jr. was the best player on the court in the game, as he was a perfect 3 of 3 from behind the arc and had a game high 15 points in the first half. He was playing with energy and confidence for the first time since the loss at Iowa seven games ago. Baker and Paul Mulcahy also played well, making good passes and playing with confidence. Also, give Johnson credit as he grabbed 7 rebounds coming off the bench in the opening frame.
Even though Illinois held a 10-4 edge on the offensive glass in the first half, the teams both scored 8 second chance points. Rutgers shot 44% from the floor, 3 of 8 from three and an impressive 7 of 8 from the foul line. Illinois shot just 34% from the floor, 4 of 15 from three and 4 of 8 from the line. Despite that, the Scarlet Knights only led 34-32 at the half.
Out of halftime, Baker lobbed a pass to Harper Jr. who banked it in one handed. After a defensive stop, Montez Mathis found Akwasi Yeboah in the corner and he knocked down a huge three-pointer. Rutgers had its largest lead of the game just a minute into the second half at 39-32. However, Illinois battled back and it was a 1 point game with 14 minutes remaining.
The game changed on a Rutgers possession with 13 minutes to play. With a lineup of Jacob Young, Baker, Mulcahy, Harper Jr., and Johnson, the Scarlet Knights were moving the ball well and Young found Johnson, who kept his composure with Cockburn defending him and the shot clock running out. He scored on a hook shot off the glass that got the RAC faithful on their feet.
On the next Illini possession, the visitors grabbed an offensive rebound and Trent Frazier launched a three for the tie. However, Johnson blocked it and Baker grabbed the basketball. He soon found Harper Jr. in the corner, who calmly knocked down his fourth three-pointer of the game. With Rutgers leading 48-42 and 12:47 to play, the roof of the RAC almost came off.
Illinois was mired in a five plus minute scoring drought having missed its last six shots. They weren’t getting any penetration inside and Rutgers was forcing them to take jump shots.
After a media timeout, they turned it over on a steal from Harper Jr., who found McConnell for a layup in transition. He scored on a pass from Mulcahy soon after and Illinois called a timeout with RU on a 9-0 run leading 52-42 and just over 9 minutes to play.
The run continued, as the Illini turned it over after the timeout and Rutgers capitalized, as Johnson scored inside. On the next possession, Alan Griffin hit a much needed three for Illinois to end the 11-0 run. Rutgers led by 9 with just over seven minutes remaining. Andres Feliz scored soon after and Pikiell called a timeout at the 6:57 mark with a 54-47 lead.
Out of the timeout, Harper Jr. posted up but wisely passed it back out to Baker, who found Mulcahy and drove the hoop off the ball reversal and scored on a contested layup. It was a massive play to push the lead back to 9 points. After Griffin made two free throws, the game got a bit hectic and both teams struggled to get a basket. Rutgers led 56-49 with 5:30 to play before Baker made a beautiful no look pass in the lane to Mulcahy, who was wide open under the basket for the layup.
Baker continued to make plays, finding Yeboah for a three-pointer and knocking down a jumper himself. Rutgers led 63-49 with three minutes to play, but the issue was no longer in doubt. They split the season series with no. 22 Illinois (16-9; 8-6) after winning 72-57.
Ron Harper Jr. had a monster game, leading all scorers with 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting and a perfect 5 of 5 from three-point range. He added 6 boards, 2 steals and made some heady plays on both ends of the floor. He had scored just 40 points in his previous six games and his breakout performance couldn’t have come at a better time.
Geo Baker played his third straight good game, finishing with 12 points on 4 of 9 shooting, while dishing a game high 7 assists and grabbing 4 rebounds. His leadership on the floor and the confidence he gives RU when he is playing well is immeasurable.
Akwasi Yeboah also had 12 points on 4 of 7 shooting, as well as 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He hit two key three-pointers and played his usual sound defense.
This team is still evolving. The way that Paul Mulcahy has stepped up the past two games is a major development for the potential of this team this season. He was in control and aggressive, finishing with 8 points on 3 of 4 shooting, as well as 3 assists. His defense is much improved and he added a block and a steal. His growth has given Rutgers another playmaker on the floor and will only make this team more difficult to deal with down the stretch this season.
Offensively, Rutgers shot 49% from the floor, 7 of 15 from behind the arc (47%) and a sterling 11 of 12 from the free throw line. They were even on the boards with Illinois, but held a 28-18 edge with points in the paint. It was an efficient and impressive offensive performance for Rutgers. They shared the basketball and took good shots, while only committing 9 turnovers.
The defense was superb in this game, holding Illinois to just 31% shooting and only 8 of 28 from three-point range (29%). They forced the Illini to settle for contested jump shots and star Kofi Cockburn was just 1 of 3 from the floor in the second half. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, but wasn’t much of a factor in the second half. Give Myles Johnson credit, who came off the bench to deliver a solid performance against Cockburn, scoring 6 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 2 shots. Shaq Carter played good defense as well in 15 minutes with a block and 3 rebounds.
Up next, Rutgers hosts Michigan (15-9; 6-7) on Wednesday night at the RAC. The Wolverines star Isaiah Livers is back from injury after missing the first meeting in which Rutgers lost at the Garden in January. In fact, they’ve never beaten Michigan over the years. It will be another sellout at the RAC and after the way they played as a team tonight, they should have plenty of confidence entering the rematch against the Wolverines. The Scarlet Knights are now 18-8 on the season and 9-6 in Big Ten play in fourth place, as well as a perfect 17-0 record at the RAC. It’s the most conference regular season wins for the program in 21 years. A special season continues as Rutgers remains firmly in the hunt for the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 29 years.