Rutgers men’s basketball lost their third consecutive game on a three-point dagger in the closing seconds on Saturday. This time it was against UMass, who the Scarlet Knights led by as many as 17 points and by 15 with over eight minutes to play. The Minutemen hit four three-pointers down the stretch, including the last at the buzzer by star Noah Fernandes. They made 16 of 32 attempts from behind the arc in the game as Rutgers only scored 7 points in the final seven minutes of the game. The result was a 85-83 loss on the road that has this team reeling even more so.
It was Paul Mulcahy who put Rutgers back in front by 1 with 5 seconds left in the game. However, the defense failed to recognize Fernandes quickly enough and the Scarlet Knights paid dearly for it. This was a crucial game for RU to get back on track before the schedule ramps up in the next two weeks. Their inability to close out games is directly tied to their inability to close out on shooters in the final possessions of games.
The glass half full approach says that Rutgers is three possessions to a 6-0 record. However, it’s the lack of execution on both ends of the floor that has doomed this team and is why the reality is a 3-3 record.
While Rutgers was much better offensively in this game, they stalled down the stretch and the zone implored by UMass stymied them. They shot 63.2% from two-point range and held a commanding 50-12 advantage with points in the paint. RU was also 12 of 15 from the foul line and were +12 on the boards. They also dished out 25 assists on 34 made field goals, so sharing the basketball was much better. The issue was an inability to get buckets and hold the lead down the stretch, while remaining vulnerable against a team with three-point shooters.
This team continues to struggle with defending without fouling, as UMass was 21 of 27 from the free throw line off of 17 Rutgers fouls.
Six players scored in double digits, led by Cliff Omoruyi with 16 points on 7 of 9 shooting and a team high 8 rebounds. Ralph Gonzales-Agee was a bright spot off the bench, scoring 14 points on 5 of 5 shooting, as was Mawot Mag, who finished with 12 points and 4 rebounds. Jaden Jones had 11 points and 4 rebounds in his first career start, while Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy each had 11 points as well. Harper Jr. also had 5 boards and 5 assists, while Mulcahy had 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Caleb McConnell played his best game of the season, finishing with 6 points, 9 assists, and 6 steals. He was much more disciplined in only committing one turnover and not attempting a three-pointer.
Geo Baker missed the game with a lower leg injury that was suffered in Monday’s loss to Lafayette. After the game, head coach Steve Pikiell said that “he wasn’t close” to playing and that he “hasn’t done anything” in regard to practicing this past week. It sounds like Baker will miss multiple games with the schedule only ramping up. Clemson comes to Piscataway on Tuesday, followed by the Big Ten opener at Illinois next Friday.
Rutgers is officially in crisis mode in regard to their season outlook. Pikiell remained loyal to his team in the postgame, stating “We’ve lost three games by one possession. We haven’t been able to finish them. You’re right, and hold those expectations against me too, guys. Because I really believe in this team. This team is going to keep working and we’re going to figure this out.”
After two impressive seasons that included a NCAA Tournament victory last March, the cold reality of this campaign has left fans without hope for this team before the calendar has even reached December.