The historic four game winning streak for Rutgers against ranked foes came to an end on Sunday night in the hardest place to play in the Big Ten aside from the RAC, formally known as Jersey Mike’s Arena. No. 5 Purdue were winners in eight of their last nine games but had Mackey Arena rocking to max against the hottest team in the country. Matt Painter’s team played to their high ceiling potential and won the game 84-72, allowing the Boilermaker faithful to exhale in a way that was equal parts sigh of joy and relief.
That’s right, Rutgers brought the best out of the first place team in the Big Ten after defeating the Boilermakers in the last four meetings between the two teams, including on Ron Harper Jr.’s halfcourt buzzer beater earlier this season. It wasn’t by chance, as it was pretty clear one of the best teams in the country had been keenly waiting in the two plus months it took for Rutgers to come to West Lafayette.
The Scarlet Knights have gone from Big Ten afterthought to the team no one wants to play. Purdue fans were unashamed to admit before the game how nervous they were for this matchup with their title hopes partly tied to the outcome.
“We played a really good team tonight that played really well too, said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “I wanted to give them a little credit for playing as well as they have in the last couple games. They were ready. They were physical. They went inside, they went outside.”
The Boilermakers came out swinging and Rutgers failed to close out well enough on the arc, as the home team started the game making 6 of 9 shots from three-point range. It resulted in a 9 point deficit just over eight minutes into the game and Purdue was on pace to exceed the century mark on the scoreboard. RU was staggering on the ropes, Mackey was in a frenzy and it seemed like the knockout punch was inevitably upcoming.
And then Rutgers did what it does best. It kept fighting and playing as hard as possible.
The Scarlet Knights got back into the game behind a 16-8 run that included a statement dunk from Cliff Omoruyi that drew a foul while sending the 7’4” Zach Edey sprawling to the floor. It signaled this team wasn’t going to back down even an inch.
The best player on the floor was Purdue’s star Jaden Ivey, who scored 9 of his team’s last 13 points of the first half to push their lead to 45-36 at the break. A key mistake was by Omoruyi, who held up two fingers in the face of big man Trevion Williams and was called for a technical foul.
On Cliff needing to maintain his composure, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said after the game, “Yeah, I mean you really have to. He didn’t mean to, with the environment, it’s tough he just got caught up in the moment there and I have to find out what was said because I didn’t get an explanation for it.” Pikiell stated.
He continued, “These are young players on the road. In some environments, this is the first time he’s played in an environment like this. This is a tough place. We will use it as a learning experience. Cliff’s been playing well and we have to keep him at a high level and have him continue to make progress with him on both ends of the floor.”
Omoruyi scored in double figures for the sixth consecutive game, finishing with 14 points on 4 of 10 shooting and 6 rebounds.
The second half start was not what Rutgers needed to have a chance to win the game, as they didn’t score until almost five minutes into it and trailed 56-36. They finally scored when Aundre Hyatt made two free throws and soon after RU ended a 8:42 drought without a made basket spread over both halves with a Mawot Mag layup.
Even so, a Paul Mulcahy three-pointer made it a 10 point game with 9:09 remaining and the Mackey faithful had to have doubt start to creep in the front of their minds. Purdue never let their lead fall under single digits though and Rutgers winning streak was over.
“Matt Painter does a great job, I hope people here really appreciate him. I have a ton of respect for him. They have a lot of weapons. Treyvon Williams is a problem, Zach Edey is a problem, Sasha Stefanovic is a problem, Jaden Ivey is a problem,” stated Pikiell. “So they have a lot of options on how they want to attack you and they certainly had it going today. Ivey got fouled a lot going downhill. He’s a good player, credit to him and he got to the free throw line a ton.”
One major question coming into the game was the health of Ron Harper Jr., who injured his non-shooting hand at the end of Wednesday’s win over No. 12 Illinois. His left hand was taped but after making two three-pointers early in the game, Rutgers’ leading scorer showed he was ready to play. He played 33 minutes and finished with 12 points on 4 of 9 shooting (2 of 7 from three) along with 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
“Yeah he did great. That was Ron,” said Pikiell. “Ron is tough as nails so he wanted to play and he played well. He fought through a tough injury, so I’m glad to have him back. I had a lot of concerns today, but he was great, he felt great. You always worry about all of your players with injuries, but Ron is tough and he will continue to make big plays for us.”
Rutgers had a very efficient offensive night with a rating of 113.6. They averaged 1.14 points per possession and shot 57.9% from two-point range. However, it wasn’t good enough against the most efficient offense in college basketball and Purdue had one of its better performances of the season. They had an offensive efficiency rating of 132.4, shot 66.7% from two-point range and had an amazing 59.2% free throw rate. They took advantage of the frequent trips to the charity stripe, making 24 of 29 attempts from the foul line for 82.8%. The 84 points allowed was the second most Rutgers surrendered to a Big Ten opponent this season.
The 24 fouls committed by RU left them without Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy in the final minutes of the game.
McConnell scored just 2 points on 3 shots, but did finish with 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. He now has 21 steals over his last five games and at least 3 in every one of them. He is now 10th in program history with 143 steals in his career and is one away from tying Kelvin Troy in ninth place. lIvey was hard for him and anyone to slow down, as he did get to the line often on the night though, leading all scorers with 25 points including making 15 of 18 shots from the foul line.
Mulcahy led Rutgers in scoring with 15 points, including 12 coming in the second half. He was 6 of 8 shooting on the night, dished out 6 assists and grabbed 2 rebounds. He has now scored in double figures in his last seven games straight and handed out at least 7 assists in seven of his last nine game. His emergence has completely changed the dynamic of this team.
“Paul’s been great, he really has been. He’s our voice,” explained Pikiell. “Even though no one could hear him today because of the loud noise and the crowd. He’s our director. He guards people. He’s improved in every area. He leads the league in assists. Caleb McConnell leads the league in the steals. Those guys fight and do what they need to do. We need Paul to continue to be aggressive like’s he’s been and he’s having a great year for us.”
A key to the four game winning streak for Rutgers was outscoring opponents 52-7 in fast break points. That wasn’t an area that they were able to get going in on Sunday, as Purdue held a 12-4 advantage in transition scoring.
“They got to the free throw line, so that slows down the transition game a ton,” said Pikiell. “We gave up a high percentage so it’s tough to make a run on makes. We have to run on misses,” Pikiell said. “We still scored 72 points, plenty of points to win the game but they’re an elite offensive team and you have to do a better job. You can’t run when you’re boxing out at the free throw line. It’s not a good recipe.”
Another big issue was Rutgers having a -4 turnover margin but the real difference was the Boilermakers taking advantage of them, holding a 19-4 advantage in points off of turnovers.
Rutgers did get good bench production as they outscored Purdue 18-16. Dean Reiber had 8 points on 3 of 3 shooting as well as a rebound and an assist. Mawot Mag had 6 points on 3 of 4 shooting and a rebound. Aundre Hyatt had 4 points on 1 of 3 shooting and 3 rebounds. Certainly a positive as those three will be crucial down the stretch of this season as well.
Despite the loss, Rutgers sits along in fifth place in the Big Ten standings but are just one of four teams with at least ten wins in league play. At 10-6 in the conference and 16-10 overall, the Scarlet Knights sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble with two weeks of the regular season remaining. They dropped to No. 80 in the NET rankings after the loss to Purdue, but have three crucial Quad 1 opponents in their last four games. They’ll head to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team swirling in controversy after an altercation with Wisconsin on Sunday that included head coach Juwan Howard.
The most important thing for Rutgers is they stayed focused on themselves and playing for each other.
“This team’s been tough; they’ve been easy to coach,” Pikiell said. “They prepare; they’ve put in the work. Even tonight they fought until the end. Proud of them. They’ve done a lot of firsts, and hopefully we’ve got a lot more going down the road here.”
Rutgers struggled on the road for most of the season, but after winning at No. 14 Wisconsin and playing No. 5 Purdue tough on Sunday in their last two away games, they’ll bring plenty of confidence in facing a team they’ve already beaten in Michigan on Wednesday.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t go quietly in the loss to No. 5 Purdue and they won’t go quietly in March either. If they can win a few more games down the stretch, Rutgers will be a team that no one wants to play in the NCAA Tournament.
To read why Matt Painter thinks Rutgers “can win a lot of games in the NCAA Tournament”, click here.