Slow start leaves Rutgers with little rest in 75-59 win over Central Connecticut State
Ask any member of the Rutgers men’s basketball team and they’ll say every game on the schedule is approached the same exact way.
But when looking ahead to Tuesday’s game, it paled in comparison to the monster of a conference slate the Scarlet Knights will face in their second season in the Big Ten.
The Knights' game against Central Connecticut State was supposed to be a walk in the park compared to the opposition they faced during the 4-game losing skid they had going into the game.
Facing a winless opponent, the players who usually play heavy minutes had an opportunity to get some extended rest ahead of Rutgers’ matchup at George Washington, who is on the brink of entering the Top 25 after receiving 60 votes in the latest AP Poll.
But the opportunity was wasted.
While the Knights (4-5) eventually pulled away in the last 15 minutes to win by a score of 75-59, the Blue Devils (0-8) gave them a run for their money in the first 25.
When the halftime horn sounded, Rutgers was up just three points, 28-25, and appeared to be going through the motions, hoping the talent gap between the teams would suffice.
But the talent gap is only good if it is applied.
Sophomore guard Mike Williams, who led the Knights in scoring against Seton Hall with 16 points, was scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting in the first half.
Williams picked it up in the tail end of the second half, hitting his last two field attempts to push his final point total to eight, but his struggle to produce in the first three-fourths of the game was evident.
There was a reason the Brooklyn, New York, native looked sluggish for most of the game.
Williams walked into the locker room after the game alongside head coach Eddie Jordan, but the two weren’t only talking about the game.
“He had a test to take about an hour and a half before the game. How about that?” Jordan said. “He had to take a test so he was a little bit skewed sideways, whatever you want to call it, a little bit distracted. When I was talking to him, I said … ‘I hope you passed the test.’”
Freshman guard Corey Sanders, who has played the second most minutes on the team (217) despite missing the season-opener due to a self-imposed one-game suspension after he played in a non-sanctioned basketball game over the summer, played 13 minutes in the first half to tie for the team lead entering the break.
He led all scorers with 9 points through the first 20 minutes but his team struggled, entering the half with a slim 28-25 lead.
The sluggish start to the game forced Sanders to play significant minutes deep into the second half. The Lakeland, Florida, native finished the game with a team-high 32 minutes.
Entering his first year, Sanders was expected to take a large role as the biggest recruit Rutgers has secured since former McDonald’s All-American Mike Rosario (2008-10).
Leading the team in average minutes as a true freshman is a challenge many highly-touted first-year players have to overcome in the one-and-done era, but it's one Sanders eagerly welcomes.
“Like I said in the beginning of the year, I’m gonna come in and play ball,” he said. “I’m a ball player, you know, I’ve been doing this for several years. If you come in and you play ball, do what you know you could do, it’s going to take care of itself, so I just come out and I feel the game and try to do the best I can every night.”
The closeness of the game allowed for no additional rest for a team that entered the game with just nine scholarship players.
But that wasn’t a big problem in Sanders' eyes.
“I wanted to play as many minutes as I can play just to get myself better, so I could feel the game better, so I could get a better relationship with my guys,” he said. “This wasn’t coming into the game, we could get up and get rest. It wasn’t nothing like that. It was ‘keep me in coach, let me get better, let me form chemistry with my players.’”
The Louis Brown Athletic Center’s reported attendance was 3,131, but there appeared to be less than 1,000 in the stands.
There was a lack of emotion and energy in the building, but that had little effect on senior guard Bishop Daniels.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but I got tunnel vision (on the court), so I can’t tell you,” he said of the low attendance.
Daniels provided a spark off the bench in a game Rutgers desperately needed it, scoring 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting to complement his six rebounds and six assists. Along with freshman forward Jonathan Laurent, who scored 15, Daniels played a big part in the Knights’ 38 points off the bench, one more point than the starting lineup scored.
With as good a view as anyone at the RAC, the Raleigh, North Carolina, native was able to see the areas in which Rutgers was lacking, which allowed him to be a difference-maker.
“When I’m on the bench at the beginning of the game, I see what we’re lacking at, what we need to step up at, so I can try to come in and provide the energy and step up where we need help at,” Daniels said.
In his last year on the Banks, Daniels has been given a role as the first one off the bench by Jordan.
While he would rather see his face on the scoreboard above the court as his name is announced minutes before tip-off, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his team ends up on the winning side.
“As any player, (I) would like to start, but at the end of the day, if my team is gon’ win, I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do to help this team win,” Daniels said. “If I’m going to be that spark off the bench, I’m gotta be that spark of the bench to help my teammates out so we could win.”
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