Rutgers establishes momentum entering Big Ten play in 89-66 rout of UMass-Lowell
PISCATAWAY — Rather than pulling up for the 3-pointer from the wing as he had seemingly done so all night long, Omari Grier decided to float it up to Corey Sanders instead.
“I missed Corey. We talked about it, too, about the game before. I missed him on a lob,” Grier said, referring to a miscommunication with Sanders on an intended alley-oop last game. “I told him if I saw the opportunity I would try to get that up to him and it showed tonight.”
As the graduate transfer let the heave fly, the freshman point guard came soaring in after sneaking unguarded along the baseline, throwing down an electric 2-hand slam and completing the alley-oop to highlight the Scarlet Knights’ 89-66 surge past UMass-Lowell.
Rutgers rounded out non-conference play by inching closer to .500, overcoming six losses in seven games with back-to-back wins over Fairleigh Dicksinson last Wednesday and the River Hawks (4-8) on Monday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
“(The win) gives us a lot of confidence,” Grier said. “With the loss of a lot of our three big guys, it hurt us. But the opportunity came for a lot of the other guys on our team to step up and I just feel like, as a team, we need to be able to be more vocal with each other, play together and it’ll really show even though our team’s going through a little bit of adversity right now … we’re becoming a lot more unified as a team.”
The Knights (6-7) received balanced efforts across the board. Freshman forward Jonathan Laurent pitched in a scrappy double-double, working and gritting down low at the four and the five for 13 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
Sophomore guard Mike Williams added 10 points, five rebounds and three assists, capping the number of Knights scoring in double digits at four while the bench poured in 29 points behind him.
But before and after connecting on the alley-oop midway through the second half, it was the Grier and Sanders show all night long at the RAC.
Grier came out of nowhere, torching UMass-Lowell for a game-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting. He missed his first attempt from 3-point range early on before catching fire for six straight treys to end the game.
Sanders, meanwhile, added 20 points of his own on an 8-for-14 mark from the field and a 3-for-5 margin from behind the 3-point arc. That was only the beginning of his do-it-all line that also saw him grab seven rebounds and dish out four assists as a catalyst for the Knights.
Following up his own career night against FDU with an encore for the home crowd of 4,075, Sanders showed how much greater Rutgers offense can become when the weight of the scoring isn’t all on his shoulders.
“Gotta find him,” Sanders said of Grier. “Gotta find him, get it to him, get my assists up and get his points up. That’s a great deal for us.”
After a slow start saw the Knights fall behind early on, they turned it around to enter the locker room at halftime with a comfortable 43-32 double-digit cushion.
Rutgers returned in the second period looking to drive that lead further and it did, pushing the lead to 20 on a 3-pointer from Sanders with 7:44 remaining and burst the doors open on a rout at the RAC.
Facing a shorter lineup from the River Hawks, Jordan said the Knights meant to drive to the basket and attack the rim for high-percentage shots against the UMass-Lowell’s zone-heavy defensive looks.
But with a 10-of-16 mark from 3-point land headlining a 53.7-percent clip from the field, the third-year head coach said he would take whatever works.
“Very satisfying to win with a cushion like that,” said head coach Eddie Jordan. “Very satisfying to see our guys’ shots go in, and that was the name of the game.”
With the non-conference slate out of the way and the Big Ten opener against Indiana looming on Wednesday, Rutgers knows it won’t be able to get too caught up in the string of back-to-back wins.
But with the momentum of the first winning streak since the season started over a month ago, the Knights have garnered more confidence.
For Jordan, win or lose, that makes the quick adjustment of a less than 48-hour window easier to adjust to.
“If you lost, you get over with and get to the next game. If you win, you feel good and it is a lighter practice on Tuesday,” Jordan said. “It is more mental and game planning stuff and shooting. Then, let’s go play again. I love it.”
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