On a tense night when the pressure was immense for both sides, Rutgers seemed to come out tight. Missing open shots, turning it over, failing to close out on three-point attempts and unable to establish a flow on either side of the floor, the Scarlet Knights fell into a big hole against No. 13 Wisconsin. The Badgers were playing for a chance to move into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten with a victory and they seized the opportunity in the 66-61 win on Saturday night. On the flip side, RU is unofficially on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament at the moment.
Falling behind by 11 points twice in the first half was where the game was ultimately lost. Wisconsin has now won 14 times in a row this season in games decided by six points or less. No team in college basketball has accomplished that feat in at least three decades. While the Badgers don’t stand out statistically as an elite team, they rarely make mistakes down the stretch. It’s what made Rutgers’ win in Madison two weeks ago so impressive in how they closed out the 8 point victory. Saturday’s fate was different in large part to the poor first half performance and spotting the Badgers such a large cushion. Credit Rutgers for battling back and taking the lead twice in the final eight minutes of the game, but Wisconsin was able to withstand the comeback due to their clutch play down the stretch yet again.
“I have to watch the tape but I thought we got good looks,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “We probably need to make that a little closer at halftime, especially the way they play and the pace that they play at. They’re a tough team to get down to but we fought back and got the lead credit to our guys. The job that Caleb did, I thought he gave me as good a job in both games against one of the leading scorers in the country. And Ron just continues to fight. So things weren’t going our way tonight, but we figured out a way to claw back into the game and gave ourselves a chance to win and just a couple plays down stretch couple that’s the difference.”
The key to the four game winning streak against ranked foes was Rutgers coming out strong from the opening tip on in each one. They didn’t do that in a crucial game at home and it was due to poor play in several areas that have been issues at times this season.
The Scarlet Knights fell into a bad habit of forcing offense in isolation situations after missing open shots in rhythm of the offense. For a team that was ranked 15th nationally in assist rate coming, dishing out just 1 assist in the first half was almost unthinkable. They finished the game with a season low 6 assists on 24 made field goals, which is also the worst assist rate in a game this year at just 25%. They lacked flow and forced low percentage shots in key moments in the loss.
“We really want to get the ball moving a little bit more, wanting to get it downhill,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said. “We got Geo getting us back in the game. He was heading downhill and getting to the free throw line and being able to change up our defenses. So, you know, just a rare game. We’ve been a great assist team, but there was not a lot of possessions in these kinds of games, especially when you play Wisconsin and the pace that they play at is so difficult.”
A big reason why was Paul Mulcahy having a second straight poor performance. It follows after not only playing the best month of his career, but at the highest level a Rutgers point guard had played in decades. He fell into foul trouble for a third consecutive game and the offense is clearly not able to work as effectively when he isn’t directing it. Mulcahy finished with 7 points on 3 of 6 shooting and 5 rebounds, but also just 1 assist and 5 turnovers. His frustration was evident and the team lacks energy when he isn’t in the flow of the game.
The defense was generally good, especially in the second half, with the exception of defending the arc. Wisconsin was last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting percentage but went 9 of 20 on Saturday. Brad Davison, Steven Crowl and Chuck Hepburn all hit back breaker three’s in the final ten minutes of the game. RU was slow to close out shots and were caught out of position a few times. When you only make 4 of 17 from behind the arc on the offensive end, you can’t let the other team punish you from deep. It was a big difference in the outcome.
Free throw shooting has been very solid in Big Ten play with Rutgers shooting 74.9% from the charity stripe coming into the game. They made just 9 of 15 from the foul line on Saturday, with three of the misses coming on one and one opportunities. In a close game against a team like Wisconsin, every miss felt huge and was a major reason the comeback fell short.
Another missed opportunity was scoring just 4 second chance points despite grabbing 8 offensive rebounds.
Rutgers finished with a +7 rebounding margin, had just four second half turnovers and held Wisconsin to just 43% shooting in the game. Caleb McConnell had another great defensive performance with 6 defensive boards, 3 blocks, 2 steals and holding soon to be All-American Johnny Davis to just 6 of 19 shooting from the floor. Geo Baker came alive in the second half and almost willed Rutgers to victory before missing a long distance three-pointer in the final seconds. He finished with a team high 19 points on 9 of 19 shooting and 4 assists. Ron Harper Jr. was the only other RU player in double figures, finishing with 15 points on 5 of 11 shooting and 5 rebounds. Cliff Omoruyi had 9 points on 4 of 6 shooting and 10 rebounds.
In the end, the Scarlet Knights fell short because they didn’t play well enough on either end to beat a Wisconsin team that has a chance to win the Big Ten regular season title outright next week.
On the flip side, Rutgers officially has their backs against the wall for a third consecutive year entering the final week of the regular season. They need to beat both Indiana on the road Wednesday and Penn State on senior night next Sunday or they’ll enter the Big Ten Tournament likely needing to make a deep run to go dancing this March.
“It was disappointing but a lot of basketball left and we got to go on the road now,” said Pikiell. “Then we got the last home game which is going to be special. These guys have given so much to our program.”
It would be foolish to count this Rutgers team out for good after all they’ve battled back from this season and as a group previously. They needed big wins in the last week of the regular season in both of the last two years and came through each time. However, following a disappointing performance on Saturday, this team needs to figure things out quickly once again or it will be too late, once and for all.