Rutgers needed to beat No. 13 Michigan State on Saturday at Jersey Mike’s Arena to keep hope alive for the postseason. In a season that has been equal parts unpredictable, maddening and exhilarating, Steve Pikiell’s team delivered and then some.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t just defeat the Spartans, they dominated them in every facet of the game on their way to a much needed 84-63 triumph. It resulted in the largest margin of victory over a ranked foe in program history. They had yet to play their “A” game over a full 40 minutes this season, but that box is now checked and going to be hard to top.
“Well, that was an old-fashioned butt-kicking,” said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.
The legendary leader of the Spartans wasn’t kidding.
The Scarlet Knights shot 62% from the floor and were 9 of 20 for 45% from three-point range. They held MSU to just 42.8% from two-point range, which resulted in RU holding a 38-16 advantage with points in the paint. They were also an impressive +11 on the glass. Rutgers had a +3 turnover margin and most importantly, a 19-6 edge in points off of turnovers. They also held a stunning 11-0 advantage in fast break points against a team that’s as dangerous as the break as any in the Big Ten.
“Great environment today. Jersey Mike’s Arena was jumping,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “I loved the environment. I think I’m going to go get some subs today from Jersey Mike’s after this. It was a great game. Everyone obviously contributed. You know the respect I have for Michigan State I think Coach Izzo is the best coach in the country. You have to play 40 minutes and we did today. A lot of guys did a lot of good things so I’m real pleased. This league, another tough one is right around the corner. So I’m happy, just for a moment.”
If you could draw up the way you wanted Rutgers to perform in a must win over a top Big Ten opponent, it would be hard to sketch it any better. That a historic offensive performance came against a top 25 defense makes that much more remarkable.
The offensive efficiency rating of 134.5 in the win was the highest in any game that Rutgers has had in the Steve Pikiell era. In fact it was the second highest of the KenPom era behind only an 89-83 loss to West Virginia on January 31, 2007. They also shot 71.9% from two-point range, the second best shooting percentage for RU from inside the arc of the Ken Pom era, which is 25 years old.
Izzo added on the way Rutgers performed, “It doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure Steve is as frustrated as I was today with the inconsistency. I thought the crowd was awesome. They did a great job and they deserve what they got. I’m a Steve Pikiell fan. I hate him today.”
It was a true team win. Six players scored in double figures in 20+ point victory over a ranked foe for the first time in program history. Five players had at least 4 rebounds and made at least one three-pointer.
No player was more impressive than Paul Mulcahy. After a career performance in which he posted 31 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds in the 1 point overtime loss to Northwestern on Tuesday, he responded with another dominant outing. 15 points on 6 of 9 shooting, a career high 12 assists to just 2 turnovers, 4 rebounds and a steal. Perhaps most impressive was the manner in which he operated. He was confident, assertive and dictated the action. His size, vision, unselfishness and perhaps most important, urgency, took Rutgers to another level.
Cliff Omoruyi also responded following a career high 22 point performance against Northwestern with a 17 point night on 6 of 6 shooting, along 4 rebounds and 2 blocks. He continues to defend without fouling and logged another 30 minutes of action. His presence on the floor and ability to avoid foul trouble has been key to his impact this season.
Ron Harper Jr. remained consistent and delivered production right at his scoring average with 17 points. It wasn’t one of his best performances but it was more than enough with so many other contributors. That’s a key step in team building as Rutgers learns to win without solely relying on their best player.
As for Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell, both were held scoreless and struggled on both ends of the floor in the loss to Northwestern. They both bounced back in a big way on Saturday like winners do.
Baker had 12 points and was 3 of 6 from three-point range, as well as 5 assists to 1 turnover, 3 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. He is an easy target after losses, but the reality is Baker is putting together the most complete season of his career. He also became the 12th player in program history to score 1,500 points after Saturday’s performance.
McConnell had 11 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals. He also shut down MSU’s leading scorer Gabe Brown in the second half, holding him to just 6 points and three shots. He has been inconsistent throughout the season, but when McConnell is locked in and connected, he is a tough player for any team to deal with. He was all over the action on Saturday and made a huge impact, one that shouldn’t be overlooked among many good one’s.
Off the bench, Dean Reiber contributed with a career high 12 points in just 11 minutes on 5 of 6 shooting and 2 of 3 from behind the arc. He added 2 assists, a rebound and a block. Reiber’s development the past month plus has been seemingly out of nowhere after a quiet start to his second season. His poise, willingness to defend even if he is overmatched at times, and his confidence in his own shot have really stood out. He provided a spark off the bench once again and has become a key member of this team.
“We needed to match their physicality,” Pikiell said. “I was pleased that our guys got out and we ran. We shared the game, 22 assists in a game like this is hard to do. They were really good defensively. We outrebounded them, which was a huge key for us, they are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. When our guys are attached and play like that, Paul a career high in assists, the job that Caleb did, Dean comes off the bench and gets his career high. Cliff doesn’t miss a shot. Ron gets his head down and gets to the rim and makes some key plays. Jalen Miller comes in and gives us great energy. They really helped us move the needle in that second half with great energy.”
Rutgers has now defeated Michigan State in back to back games over two seasons by a combined 51 points after never beating them in 11 previous tries. This team has been wildly inconsistent this season but with postseason hopes still on the ropes, they gave fans a strong reminder of what they are capable of. With seven more Quad 1 opponents on the horizon, the opportunity for the Scarlet Knights to still write a happy ending to this season remains.
A blowout victory over a high Quad 1 opponent in MSU (No. 21) should jump Rutgers up the NET rankings by double digits. More wins are needed and another opportunity presents itself on Wednesday when No. 16 Ohio State comes to Piscataway. As the Scarlet Knights proved again on Saturday with one of the best team performances in program history, this team shouldn’t be counted out yet.