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Rutgers stuns No. 12 Illinois with 70-59 win

The Scarlet Knights earned their fourth consecutive win over a ranked opponent to boost NCAA Tournament chances.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers made history once again on Wednesday night with a program record fourth consecutive win over a ranked foe. The Scarlet Knights also became the the first unranked team all-time to play four straight regular season games against AP-ranked opponents and beat all of them.

The gauntlet that was the February schedule has been handled to perfection by the Scarlet Knights. It was capped off with a 70-59 victory over No. 12 Illinois at Jersey Mike’s Arena in Piscataway.

They have reached double-digit victories in the Big Ten for the third straight season and are now on solid ground to return to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year.

Ron Harper Jr. led Rutgers with 16 points and 8 rebounds while Cliff Omoruyi went toe-to-toe with one of the best centers in the nation in Kofi Cockburn from the opening minutes. He logged 15 points and 13 rebounds. Harper Jr. would leave the game late with a left hand injury and is listed as day-to-day.

It was clear that Kofi Cockburn was going to get his for Illinois (18-7, 11-4) but the Illini struggled outside of their big man. Cockburn finished with 20 points on 8-for-14 from the field but the rest of the team was just 14-for-44.

Rutgers (16-9, 10-5) jumped out to a double-digit lead just six minutes into the game after yet another strong start. It got as high as 11 in the first half before heading into the locker room with a 33-24 lead. The Scarlet Knights used a 10-1 run early in the second half to break the game open and go up 19.

The Scarlet Knights were up by as much as 21 in the second half but the No. 12 team in the nation had one more run in them. The Illini used turnovers and some late three-pointers to keep their head above water but the lead did not get within nine.

If there was a knock on Rutgers on Wednesday night, it was that they turned the ball over 13 times. Aside from that, Steve Pikiell’s squad continued to defend at a high level and that was the difference. Against one of the best rebounding teams in the Big Ten, Rutgers was +18 on the boards (46-28).

Rutgers shot 47% from the field and went 9-for-14 from the free throw line, including three from Geo Baker down the stretch. Paul Mulcahy continues to shine adding 13 points and 7 more assists.

The schedule remains difficult for Rutgers as it prepares to take on No. 5 Purdue in West Lafayette before a trip to Michigan and a rematch with Wisconsin. After these last two weeks, looks more manageable in a way it never did before.

Not only was this the fourth consecutive victory against a ranked opponent for Rutgers. It was not only the biggest home game in the Pikiell era or needle moving win to the big dance. This was the cap on what has been the best month of basketball in program history for the Scarlet Knights.