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Rutgers delivers a defensive performance for the ages

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The Scarlet Knights did the unthinkable against the high powered offense of Iowa.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As each shot near the rim that missed bounced away, it felt like losing your breath a little bit more each time. The pain of watching Rutgers fail to establish a lead on Iowa despite playing at an historic level defensively felt like a slow, inevitable death was approaching. This would be the type of defeat that would linger all season. It would be a pain in the side that would not leave. It would inch the Scarlet Knights closer to postseason elimination. It would be a loss fans would bemoan years from now.

Surely, making just 7 of 22 layup attempts for 31.8% would prove costly and ruin such a golden opportunity to earn a much needed Quad 1 victory. Despite the success of the past two seasons, we are all still Rutgers fans and can usually sense the writing on the wall before its even been written.

And then, Rutgers did what good teams do. They closed out a game in spite of their struggles rather than falling victim to them. The Scarlet Knights outscored the Hawkeyes 15-8 over the final thirteen-plus minutes of the game.

“A great college basketball game,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “Iowa is really good, a very talented team with the leading scorer in the country. Old fashioned, defensive game. The guys willed us to a win. Great defense from start to finish. I thought we had some makeable shots but we just couldn’t seem to find the bottom of the net on some of those possessions. But we figured out a way to win. And you know, that’s life here in this league. Just figure out a way to win.”

After a miserable first month of the season, Rutgers is figuring things out.

A 5-2 start to Big Ten play has the Scarlet Knights just one game behind Wisconsin and Illinois, who sit atop the standings in a tie for first place. More work needs to be done, but the idea of Rutgers dancing in March once again is no longer a pipe dream.

RU held the third most efficient offensive team in the country to five field goals in the final 17 minutes of the game, 27.9% shooting overall and 40 points below their season scoring average. All are truly remarkable feats on their own. Together, they mark an epic defensive performance that was the most impressive of the Pikiell era.

It was a true 40 minute, complete defensive effort. Rutgers was extremely connected, particularly the starting five, who moved in unison and eliminated any open space for Iowa to operate in. They forced five air ball three-point attempts and several shot clock violations. The suffocating defense never let the visitors get into a flow. An off night offensively for a team of Iowa’s caliber typically still will result in at least 70 points. Instead, the Hawkeyes suffered offensive droughts that would wipe out all the cornfields across the the state of Iowa if they were equivalent to a lack of rain.

“We blocked shots,” Pikiell said. “These guys did a fantastic job with the game plan. And playing an elite team that runs and they get to the free throw line, real proud of them. Just found a way to get stops and really as good a defensive effort as I’ve seen. The home crowd too was just tremendous. That effort was pretty good. We need to take care of the ball better. But we have more in the tank too defensively. A great effort against a team that can really score. I told the team in timeouts, a real old-fashioned grinder. Cliff made great rebounds in traffic. We made the plays when we had too.”

As important as Ron Harper Jr. is and was offensively, his defense this season has been really good as well. He was the primary defender against the nation’s leading scorer in Keegan Murray and led the way in holding him to 11 points below his season average with only 13 for the game. Multiple defenders helped out in limiting Murray to just 5 of 14 from the floor. He looked uncomfortable most of the game. Harper Jr. on the other hand, scored 10 of Rutgers’ final 17 points down the stretch. He led all scorers with 15 points, just two below his season average, while being the one mostly keeping Murray in check. The win over Iowa is evidence that Harper Jr. has emerged as a true two-way star.

After being even in the first half on the glass, Rutgers wore Iowa down on the boards with a +11 rebounding margin in the second half. Cliff Omoruyi had 11 rebounds himself in the second half and finished with 14 in the game. He also finished with 3 blocks and 2 steals in addition to 7 points. His ability to consistently avoid foul trouble that could derail his productivity has highlighted real growth and maturity in his game. Omoruyi’s alley-oop dunk with under four minutes to play to give Rutgers the lead back was just another highlight for the freakishly athletic big man.

Paul Mulcahy, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell all struggled offensively, combining for just 7 of 24 from the field, but contributed every other way possible. Mulcahy played a team high 39 minutes, was aggressive defensively and played with a much needed edge. He finished with 5 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds. Baker made a point to find Harper Jr. down the stretch, didn’t force his shot and found ways to contribute on both ends of the floor. He finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and a steal. Caleb McConnell was everywhere defensively, active on the glass and was disruptive the entire game. He finished with 4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, an assist and a steal.

The bench outplayed Iowa with a 9-0 scoring advantage and produced +7 rebounding margin comparatively. Dean Reiber stepped up in a way that was more impressive than any performance of his so far. He only played seven minutes, but was inserted several times and stayed ready for each shift, which also showed a step in his development. He made a perfect entry pass over the top of the Iowa defense with less than four minutes to play to Harper Jr. that gave Rutgers the lead. His two early baskets came over an eight minute stretch in the first half where he was the only Scarlet Knight to score.

Out of nowhere, fellow backup big man Ralph Gonzales-Agee scored 4 points as well, including two huge free throws, that helped RU keep pace at the end of the first half. The last time Gonzales-Agee scored was against Seton Hall 38 days prior. It’s that type of contribution that good teams get from its bench in difficult spots and he delivered. Aundre Hyatt struggled offensively in missing all seven of his shots, but he grabbed 5 important rebounds, all but one in the second half, and brought a physical presence on the defensive end.

Free throw margin was another key factor in the victory. Iowa came into Wednesday shooting 76% from the foul line and averaging 21 attempts per game. They were just 6 of 11 from the charity stripe for 55% as Rutgers stayed disciplined defensively to avoid fouling. On the flip side, RU was an efficient 10 of 13 for 77% from the foul line, including making 7 of their final 8 attempts down the stretch. Harper Jr. made the last four in the final seven minutes of the game.

At the end of the day, Rutgers won the game because they were the tougher team. The Big Ten’s top three-point shooting team made just 2 of 13 from behind the arc. They had 15 turnovers. They couldn’t finish near the rim as cited above. And yet, they came out on top because of their elite defensive performance and a commitment to rebounding. It was an all hands on deck approach and each player delivered. They set a program best in holding Iowa to just 27.9% shooting, the lowest a Big Ten opponent has shot against Rutgers since joining the league eight seasons ago.

Rutgers now has their next four games against the bottom four teams in the Big Ten standings. They are scheduled to play at Minnesota on Saturday, followed by Maryland next week at home, then two consecutive road games at Nebraska and at Northwestern. Those four teams have a combined league record of 4-24. The Gophers cancelled their game on Wednesday due to Covid issues but no word yet on this weekend. Even if it does get postponed, opportunity is barreling through the front door for Rutgers. While the multiple Quad 1 opponents on the schedule in February are potential resume making wins, taking advantage of the winnable games remaining in January are a necessary requirement of getting back into NCAA Tournament contention.

After winning five of their last six Big Ten games, which includes wins over Purdue, Michigan and now Iowa, Rutgers has a legitimate chance to complete what would be a dramatic, season long comeback. If the identity that Steve Pikiell built with this program as it took steps forward during his tenure can continue to be front and center like it was on Wednesday, it is possible. Defense is the biggest key for Rutgers if they want to go dancing.

It was the best defensive performance for this program in many years and that I can remember. This was what Pikiell’s vision ultimately was when he said this was his best team ever. Rutgers won despite having its least efficient offensive performance of the season because the defense was so good. That’s his core belief, that there will be times shots aren’t falling but winning is always a possibility if his team defends and rebounds.

They are now No. 29 in defensive efficiency nationally and fourth in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights are now No. 105 in the NET rankings as of Thursday with plenty of opportunities to improve. If they can build off of Wednesday’s win over the high powered Hawkeyes, it will be remembered as a turning point in the season. Regardless, the defensive performance by Rutgers shows what this team is ultimately capable of and it inspires hope for what is yet to come.