Rutgers' offense sputters in Big Ten opener loss to Northwestern
This was the Rutgers men's basketball team's chance to make an impression in the Big Ten — to build on an 8-5 non-conference slate in spite of inconsistencies and a few ugly losses.
The Scarlet Knights are unlikely to play a more winnable conference game this season than they did in their opener Tuesday against Northwestern, but Rutgers let it slip away, 51-47.
For 10 minutes and 15 seconds of the second half at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, the Knights (8-6, 0-1) held the Wildcats (10-4, 1-0) scoreless. But during that stretch, their deficit shifted only six points from 44-35 to 44-41.
It was that kind of afternoon for Rutgers.
It shot an abysmal 30 percent from the field, senior guard Myles Mack was the only Knight to score in double figures with 15 points and little went right offensively down the stretch.
"I kind of felt like the basket kind of shrunk, and the ball wasn't getting in it. That was about it," said senior forward Kadeem Jack, who scored two points yet failed to convert a shot from the field on eight attempts after coming off the bench for being late to the team's breakfast. "But I think guys played hard."
Effort kept Rutgers in the game, but it wasn't enough to compensate.
Along with lulling Northwestern into a 10-minute scoring drought, the Knights forced 15 turnovers and won the rebounding battle for the first time since Dec. 14.
Trailing by seven with four minutes left, the Knights switched to a full-court press. Then Mack took matters into his own hands.
He sunk two free throws, stole the ball from guard Bryant McIntosh and raced down the floor for a reverse layup to cut the deficit to 44-41 with 1:38 remaining.
But after yet another defensive stop, the Knights missed four more shots in one possession.
Junior guard Bishop Daniels drove for a layup with 23 seconds left to make it 45-43, but four more free throws and a defensive breakdown for an easy Wildcat dunk ultimately sealed Rutgers' fate.
"We just couldn't put the ball in the basket," Mack said. "We took good shots. It just wasn't falling for us. Days like that happen, but we don't want it to happen like that."
For the first 13 minutes, it didn't.
Before facing a 27-22 halftime deficit, Rutgers came out firing with a 16-8 lead following a Daniels layup at the 11:45 mark.
But with precise ball movement and screening along the perimeter, Northwestern went on an 11-1 run, culminating with consecutive 3-pointers to take its first lead, 19-17, with 6:59 left.
Freshman guard Mike Williams regained the lead for Rutgers at 20-19 with 5:06 left in the half on a bank shot from 15 feet out, but that was the Knights' last lead of the half.
Their next bucket came on a layup with 36 seconds remaining to cut Northwestern's lead to 25-22 before guard Tre Demps, who finished with 16 points, drained a layup as the first-half buzzer sounded.
"I thought we started the game off at a great pace — a really great pace," said head coach Eddie Jordan. "We had pace in transition, we had pace in the half court. We defended, we executed the game plan with our switches, our pick and roll coverages, staying attached to their shooters."
It wasn't enough for Rutgers, which tallied less than 50 points for only the second time this season and continues to struggle for balance offensively.
They have a chance for redemption at the RAC on Saturday against the Nittany Lions, but the Knights realize they squandered a golden opportunity for their first Big Ten victory.
"We let this game get away from us, but we're just going to try to build from it and move on to Penn State with our practice tomorrow," Mack said.
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