Lights-out shooting propels Rutgers to 89-66 win over UMass-Lowell
PISCATAWAY — Music blared from the speakers at the Rutgers Athletic Center as tip-off between the Rutgers men’s basketball team and UMass-Lowell quickly approached.
Trading in the hair tie he’s rocked a few times this season for a white headband, freshman point guard Corey Sanders was upbeat and loose, smiling and dancing in between his shots as he and his team warmed up for its last non-conference game.
Sanders had reason to be in a good mood. Hours before tip, the Lakeland, Florida, native was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week following a career-high 21 point performance in a 72-64 win over Fairleigh-Dickinson a few days after dropping a team-high 16 points in the Scarlet Knights’ 73-67 loss to Monmouth.
“I was walking in for shootaround and I was on my phone and that popped up and I was like, ‘Wow,’” Sanders said. “I’ve been wanting one, too, but you got to win games and put up numbers to get one. That was good for me, but I got to give it to my team, though. We out here fighting.”
Sanders maintained the standard he’s set for himself against the River Hawks.
He brought the confidence he showed during the pregame warm-ups with him onto the court during the game, with a few step-back threes combined with an emphatic alley-oop dunk that put the 4,075 at the RAC on their feet. It propelled him to 20 points to go along with seven rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Head coach Eddie Jordan attributes his top recruit’s early season success to his unselfish nature on the floor combined with his raw basketball ability and willingness to learn and adapt.
“The thing about basketball is the more you pass, sometimes the easier it is for you to score,” Jordan said of Sanders. “He’s got skill, he’s got talent and that’s why he was rated one of the top players in the country ... he’s learning how to help his teammates, be good off the ball and know that he has to be more efficient with the basketball.”
His recent performances would instill confidence to most players in his position, but confidence isn’t something Sanders lacks as he and his team danced their way to a strong finish to their non-conference schedule.
“Nah,” Sanders said, when questioned if he ever feels a lack of confidence in himself. “In this game, you have to be confident or you’re going to get ate up, so I try to come out and do some eating instead of getting ate.”
While Sanders continued the form that earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, he wasn’t forced to carry the workload for his team as has been the case for most of the season. Rutgers had four players finish the game in double-figures and three other players contribute at least six points.
The scoring distribution was even among the Knights as they put on by far their best offensive display of the season.
Rutgers shot an unconscious 53.7 percent (36-for-67) from the floor, including an impressive 63.7 percent (10-for-16) clip from 3-point range.
The uncharacteristically good shooting night for Rutgers was led by an unexpected player.
Omari Grier had his best performance for the Knights against the River Hawks, leading all scorers with 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, including a gaudy 6-for-7 clip from 3-point land. The graduate transfer hit his last six shots from downtown after missing his first attempt.
“It’s actually great. I’ve just been working so hard,” Grier said. “As the season is going on, I just needed to be a little bit more assertive and little bit more aggressive than I have been in past games where I get shots and I felt like a lot of the times, I would pass it up.”
A 32-percent shooter from three during his years at Florida Atlantic and Bradley with a career-high of 33 points in last year’s season opener against UT-Arlington for the Braves, Grier has shown he has the ability to shoot the lights out when he gets into rhythm.
But the Erial, New Jersey, native has been timid whenever he’s stepped on the floor for Rutgers prior to Monday’s meeting with UMass-Lowell. He attributes the hesitation to a couple of factors.
“I felt like (the hesitation to shoot) was a lot of (being the new guy) and I felt like there would be times where I’d hit slumps in practice and just be a little bit discouraged but I just felt like me being a shooter, shooters have to shoot so I just have be a lot more aggressive in order to help my team and help us win.”
After missing his first attempt of the night, Grier hit six straight from beyond the arc, an alley-oop assist to Sanders and a few jump shots sandwiched in the middle of his own personal 3-point contest.
To the experienced player who has worn three different jerseys in his collegiate career, however, the only thing that mattered about his — and Rutgers’ — best night of the season was that it ended with a win.
“I felt like I had it going tonight and I just want to continue that from here on out to be able to help my team,” Grier said.
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