Late rally falls short as struggles continue for Rutgers
Little by little, the resolve of the Rutgers men’s basketball team has been tested.
And little by little, that resolve has been deteriorating.
Any fight remaining seemed to evaporate last Sunday when the Scarlet Knights fell to Indiana in Piscataway by 30 points and players began to vent their frustrations.
But judging by Rutgers’ 92-85 defeat to Purdue Thursday night at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, at the very least, this team is going down swinging.
The single-digit defeat broke a five-game losing streak by double-digits, and though it did not end the Knights’ (10-19, 2-14) now 12-game losing skid, it did help them escape at least one mental hurdle.
It was a result that didn’t seem possible at halftime, with the Boilermakers (19-9, 10-5) jumping out to a 16-point lead at the break.
The game could not have started any worse for Rutgers, which after winning the opening tip, turned the ball over 13 seconds later and trailed by two before the blink of an eye.
The closest the Knights came to a lead was with 14:08 remaining in the first half, where after a three-point shot from senior guard Myles Mack, they trailed, 12-11.
Mack and senior forward Kadeem Jack combined for all 11 of those points, but following some ill-advised shots and late rotations in Rutgers' defensive line, the Boilermakers had extended their lead by seven just two minutes later.
By then, frustration kicked in. The Knights forced isolated shots while Purdue shared the ball and got high-percentage looks.
The first half dominance was even more impressive given that the Boilermakers’ leading scorer and shot blocker, A.J. Hammon, played sparingly after two early personal fouls.
Instead, Purdue shared the wealth on offense led by Basil Smotherman, who finished with a game-high 17 points in place of normal starter and team assists leader Vince Edwards, who missed the game with concussion symptoms.
Smotherman averaged 2.4 points per game entering the game.
Purdue ended the first half shooting 60 percent from the field and 4-of-8 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Rutgers shot as many swishes as airballs with a 33.3 percent field goal mark.
But the second half was a different animal altogether for the Knights, who started off more aggressive in the paint.
After slowly chipping away, an 11-2 run led by junior guard Bishop Daniels brought Rutgers within 10 with 6:23 remaining and had Purdue noticeably walking on eggshells.
The Boilermakers muddled through the heat, following an and-one dunk by Hammons with a block at the other end.
However, a three-point shot from guard Mike Williams revived Rutgers back to life, with the freshman giving a boisterous yell as if he was exorcising weeks of torment.
Hammons’ 13 second half points were enough to keep Purdue from slipping in a must-win game for a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but Rutgers never relented, something head coach Eddie Jordan insisted his team had not done all season.
It was far from a perfect game, with the Knights conceding the most points they have all season long, but if there were any positives to take away aside from a moral victory, the offensive production is one of them.
For the first time this season, five Rutgers players finished a game scoring in double-figures, shooting 28-of-34 from the foul line, a vast improvement from its previous showings.
Although Mack and Jack were among the leading scorers with 18 and 15 points, respectively, they also received help from their supporting cast.
Daniels finished with 17 points and made a team-high 10 attempts at the foul line, making seven of them.
Meanwhile, freshman forward D.J. Foreman continued to impress with his play, with a career-high 15-point outing in 22 minutes off the bench.
With two games left to go before the Big Ten Tournament, the Knights still have a ways to go.
But their will to win, for the time being, is no longer one of them.
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @SeanStewartRU and @TargumSports on Twitter.