Rutgers suffers similar collapse in 69-68 defeat to Wake Forest
Haven't we seen this one before?
For the second time in two weeks, the Rutgers men's basketball took a commanding double-digit lead over a beatable opponent. This time, the Scarlet Knights had the backing of a home crowd on their home floor at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
Appearing to be removed from their 61-59 collapse at St. John's on Nov. 19, Rutgers looked ready to bounce back with a strong second half. After opening the game still seeming jet-lagged from their two-game stint out in Las Vegas last week, the Knights took a commanding 58-46 advantage with 8:54 left to play.
Then it all came apart — again.
Plagued by poor free-throw shooting and an inability to keep its composure down the stretch, Rutgers unraveled again in a 69-68 crash at the hands of Wake Forest on Monday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
"We gotta learn how to close games out," said sophomore forward D.J. Foreman, who had seven points and two rebounds. "We had the game with, like, nine minutes left in the game and we just gotta learn how to turn the corner and win. I believe that's our main weakness right now. We need to learn how to turn that corner when we have the game and we gotta get a signature win."
With their third straight loss dating back to the pair of defeats suffered to Creighton and Clemson at the Men Who Speak Up Main Event, the Knights (3-4) fall below .500 for the first time in the early season.
Despite the struggles that conjured up late in the second half, Rutgers managed to maintain control of the game-winning shot in the final minute.
Trailing the Demon Deacons (5-2) by one with 17.9 seconds remaining, freshman guard Corey Sanders stepped back for a deep jumper from the right wing but his shot clanked off the back iron. The Knights maintained possession on the scramble for the loose ball, though, with an inbound coming and 4.6 seconds left to walk off with the win.
But the final play drawn up off the timeout by head coach Eddie Jordan didn't pan out. Sanders inbounded the ball from the baseline on a play intended to find senior guard Omari Grier in the corner before finding sophomore guard Mike Williams streaking back to the top of the key on a flare as the second option.
Williams, who shot 1-for-10 from the field on the night, fired an off-balanced look on a catch-and-shoot wide right and to put the final nail in Rutgers' coffin.
"I mean, Mike (Williams) had a good shot," Sanders said. "He might've rushed it a little bit, but he had a good look at it and it just didn't fall, which was really kind of the story us tonight. So we just living to fight another day."
Sanders caught fire in the second half as the Knights jumped out to take a commanding shift of momentum, opening the period a perfect 4-for-4 with a 3-pointer mixed in through the first five minutes as Rutgers took a 41-37 lead with 15:01 remaining in the ballgame.
But after taking their largest lead of the evening with a 12-point advantage with less than 10 minutes to play, the Knights couldn't keep their feet down on the throats of the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest made Rutgers pay with a 23-11 run to end the game.
"Look, it's young players. I can repeat it over and over again. It's young players," Jordan said. "And we have to learn ... and too bad you have to lose to learn. But I'd like some lucky bounces and a good call to get a play at the end to finish the game out, but it's just what you have."
Sanders, who started and played a team-high 32 minutes despite suffering a turf toe injury last week against Clemson, took note of his coach's words after the game.
"We had a couple of close games that we just not able to close out, so that's one thing that we really gotta work on, and Coach (Jordan) always talks about we gotta close out the game," Sanders said. "Everyone goes on their runs, so we just gotta keep working on it and let it transition from practice to the game."
Jordan, Sanders and the young Knights take their latest lesson into the upcoming remainder of an underrated non-conference slate that features the likes of Seton Hall on Saturday, at George Washington (Dec. 12) and Monmouth (Dec. 20) in the next four games.
While Rutgers doesn't begin conference play until Dec. 30 against Indiana, the Knights understand the consequences of their losses at the moment.
And when they're this winnable, Foreman said the impact in the moment and down the road is felt even harder.
"It hurts a lot because our goal was before the season was we wanna clear all of our conference games before we go, so we can get momentum going into the Big Ten," he said. "So it hurts. Each game we lose, it hurts."
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.