Knights blow golden opportunity at RAC against battered Wolverines
It was all right there for the Rutgers men’s basketball team: an injured star, a reeling Michigan squad and home-court advantage coming off two slim road defeats.
Without 6-foot-7 guard and leading scorer Caris LeVert, who suffered a season-ending fractured left foot Saturday, the Wolverines made just eight of 26 3-point attempts and shot 34 percent overall from the field Tuesday night.
But defense was only half the battle at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, and as has been the case more often than not with the Scarlet Knights, the other half never materialized in a 54-50 loss.
“It’s kind of sickening,” junior guard Bishop Daniels said of the missed opportunity for Rutgers (10-10, 2-5), which came in as a 3.5-point favorite. “Coming out here today and playing as hard as we did, just having missed opportunities — and we didn’t get it done.”
Momentum swung like a pendulum all night long at the RAC, where Michigan (12-7, 5-2) won a war of attrition.
There were 12 lead changes and six ties. Twenty different players logged minutes. And up until early in the second half, neither team led by more than three points.
After Michigan pulled ahead by as many as seven with 17 minutes to play, Rutgers went on a 15-2 run as freshman forward D.J. Foreman finished with an emphatic slam on a nice feed inside from senior guard Myles Mack.
That gave the Knights a 40-34 lead with 9:04 remaining. The RAC began to rock at seismic noise levels resembling Jan. 11’s historic upset over then-No. 4 Wisconsin.
But back-to-back 3-pointers from guard Derrick Walton Jr. quieted the crowd and evened the score, and a 14-2 run gave Michigan the lead for good.
“A couple of defensive lapses,” senior forward Kadeem Jack said of where the game got away from Rutgers. “Some things happen where people went under screens, guys didn’t help and they got their juices going.”
Jack, who accompanied Mack as the only Knights in double figures with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, sank a fall-away jumper to cut the deficit to 48-44 with 1:53 to play.
Employing a full-court press, Rutgers forced a turnover as Walter Jr. errantly dribbled out of bounds along the baseline at the other end.
But in perhaps the most critical moment down the stretch, Jack dropped an entry pass in the lane from Daniels on Rutgers’ ensuing possession, resulting in a turnover and Michigan fastbreak.
“We played hard, but again, you’ve got to play hard and smart to play well,” said head coach Eddie Jordan. “We got half of it right, but not the other half.”
With under a minute left, the Knights were forced to foul. Six more eventual Michigan free throws sealed Rutgers’ fate.
Fatigue likely played a factor as Jack played all 40 minutes against Michigan’s tenacious zone featuring 2-3 and 1-3-1 elements. Mack, who carried Rutgers offensively again with a game-high 15 points, only sat for 60 seconds midway through the first half.
Despite being short-handed with injuries, none of Michigan’s 11 players saw more than 32 minutes of action in a clear depth disparity.
“I really don’t want to make any excuses,” Jack said. “A loss is loss, a win is a win, and we’ve got to pull it out. ... We’re as good as anybody in this league, and we can get all of these wins.”
But with Rutgers now mired in a three-game losing streak since that momentous victory over Wisconsin, a lack of consistency continues to plague the Knights.
The search for it gained no traction against a battered Michigan roster that dropped four straight earlier in the season, including a dreary defeat to NJIT at home.
“I don’t know if we’re playing down [to the competition], but I feel like it’s this hump we hit right now, and we’re struggling to get over it,” Daniels said. “We know what we’ve got to do, but we’re still trying to put all the pieces together.”
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