Rutgers' season ends despite valiant effort
CHICAGO — It was all but over, and Bishop Daniels didn't know what to do except sink and shake his head in dejection.
The junior guard breathed heavily as he walked off the United Center's hardwood with 76 seconds left in regulation, high-fiving his teammates sitting on the bench one at a time.
He had given it his all: several step-back jumpers, a few slick reverse lay-ins and one electrifying, fully extended one-handed slam dunk in transition.
All season, the Rutgers men's basketball team searched for a third scorer. And with the Scarlet Knights' season on the line, Daniels provided a valiant effort with 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field in the second half alone.
In the end, it just wasn't quite enough.
Fourteen-seeded Rutgers (10-22, 2-16) ultimately fell Wednesday evening in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to 11-seeded Minnesota (18-14, 6-12), 80-68, ending the careers of a pair of program staples in seniors Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack with a 15-game losing streak.
"We were just trying to move on to the next round. We didn't want to end it off in a losing streak like that," Daniels said. "They worked too hard, we worked too hard as a team to go out like we did."
That desire to salvage the season showed from the outset, as the Knights knocked down four of their first seven shots and dictated the glass throughout the night with a 37-32 rebounding advantage.
Rutgers and Minnesota exchanged jabs over the course of a seesaw affair featuring five ties and nine lead changes. But ultimately the Gophers dictated the tempo enough to deliver the deciding blows.
After a 7-2 run out of halftime — capped by a deep three-pointer by Mack — Rutgers held its first lead of the second half and Minnesota amped up its trapping and pressure defense, going on a 14-4 run to build a 46-38 cushion with 12:42 remaining.
In less than a minute, 6-foot-9 forward Joey King knocked down two of his six three-pointers on the night, dominating with crisp jab steps, smooth jumpers and a game-high 20 points. That extended Minnesota's lead to 10.
The Knights hadn't trailed by more than two possessions the entire first half.
"They started pressing and they sped us up," said Mack, who ended his career with 15 points, three assists and four steals while logging all 40 minutes of action. "They turned us over and they hit big threes and got easy layups, and it was hard for us to come back after that."
Rutgers soon responded with a 7-0 run ignited by Daniels' throw-down dunk — plus a foul — that erupted a crowd of 16,098 fans. Mack stole a pass to the right wing on Minnesota's next possession, finishing with a layup in transition. And then Jack rattled home a pull-up jumper to bring the deficit within 56-52.
All three scored double figures on the night, but Daniels' second-half outburst kept the Knights in it down the stretch.
"We broke their press and that pull-up jumper, that midrange jumper is his shot," Mack said. "Every time he got to it, it went in. He got hot, and we kept breaking the press and he took those shots, and I think those are good shots for him."
After a timeout, the Gophers regrouped and summoned a knockout punch in the form of a 9-4 run, despite leading scorer Andre Hollins being held scoreless for the first time all season.
Freshman guard Mike Williams knocked down a timely three-ball with 3:40 remaining to cut it four, but Minnesota refused to relinquish control.
Despite Rutgers' eight second-half turnovers after a more organized first half, head coach Eddie Jordan insisted he didn't mind Minnesota speeding up the tempo.
"We just didn't make simple plays," said head coach Eddie Jordan. "Some timeouts, they came out and trapped us in the corners, and on the wings there were sort of game-turning plays. You give them credit for having a game plan that way."
It certainly wasn't the only thing Rutgers didn't account for this season.
Midway through the first half, Minnesota switched to a 2-3 zone — something that routinely caused the Knights fits. They fittingly shot only 3-of-15 from the field over the final eight minutes of the period.
Rutgers was also one step behind the vast majority of Big Ten opponents on the defensive end. Minnesota's successful screening action and 4-of-8 second-half three-pointers reaffirmed that notion.
But the one thing the Knights wanted to rid themselves of was a nightmare losing streak before a three-month gut check ended.
Even that was asking just a bit too much.
"At the end of the day, we thought this was a new season, and we came out here and tried to give our best," Daniels said. "We knew this was our last chance to get it, and we just didn't."
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @gregp_j and @TargumSports on Twitter.