Solid performances from players in unfamiliar positions propel Rutgers to 72-64 win over Fairleigh-Dickinson
PISCATAWAY — When redshirt freshman forward Ibrahima Diallo injured his foot in practice Dec. 17, the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s already thin front court became even thinner.
Diallo joined sophomore center Shaquille Doorson (foot) and junior forward Deshawn Freeman (knee) in the list of players head coach Eddie Jordan wouldn’t have at his disposal as the Scarlet Knights approach the end of their out-of-conference schedule.
Facing a stretch of games with a depleted bench and limited options, Jordan immediately put freshman forward Jonathan Laurent to work on learning the power forward position while also adapting to the college game at his normal position at small forward.
“When Deshawn (Freeman) went down and when Ibrahima (Diallo) went down and when Shaq (Doorson) was already down, we put Jonathan (Laurent) at four immediately and maybe that’s why he’s a little bit going around in circles out there — not knowing where to go, how to respond, how to react to certain passes, certain play calls,” Jordan said. “He’s learning the four, he’s learning the three position and we added some more offense in. So he’s in a whirlwind, he’s in a circle.”
With just two big men — senior forward/center Greg Lewis and sophomore forward D.J. Foreman — and a total of eight scholarship players available against Monmouth, Rutgers played conservatively on the defensive end in order to not make the problem worse by getting into foul trouble.
This resulted in the Hawks scoring 42 points in the paint.
“Me and Greg (Lewis), we tried our best to not foul out because like I said, we don’t want to put any of our other players like Jonathan (Laurent) or (senior guard) Omari Grier in that position to have to guard those big guys,” Foreman said after the 73-67 loss to Monmouth.
The Scarlet Knights faced the same problem of depth Wednesday against Fairleigh-Dickinson. But this time, Foreman was more aggressive in defending the basket. His approach may have hurt Rutgers more than it helped.
The Knights from Hackensack finished with 44 points in the painted area and Foreman picked up four fouls by the 7:46 mark in the second half, forcing Jordan to go to his bench.
Laurent was tasked with taking Foreman's place in a crucial stretch of the game.
The 6-foot-6 freshman from Orlando, Florida, pulled through for the Scarlet Knights, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds. Perhaps his most important included an up-and-under layup with 3:19 to go that pushed his team’s lead to four, an advantage Rutgers rode to a 72-64 win.
Laurent wasn’t surprised with his ability to adjust. To him, the two positions he’s asked to play go hand in hand.
“I haven’t really done anything to prepare for this position. I’m just learning how to play at this position more, but it’s really just basically playing the three,” he said. “The three was just catching outside the lane, seeing the game … now the four is just catching at the elbow, catching at the low post. It’s pretty much the same, it’s just closer to the basket. It’s pretty much the same for me, that’s for sure.”
Laurent wasn’t the only Scarlet Knight who excelled out of his normal position.
Sophomore guard Mike Williams, who stands at 6-foot-2, played minutes at forward and those who looked at the stat sheet without watching the game would not know he wasn’t one. Williams finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds, his second double-double of the season.
Jordan summarized his players’ out of position performances with one word.
“That’s just grit," he said. "That’s just going after it, doing what you have to do for us to win the game."
The Scarlet Knights headed for the locker room after the halftime horn blew at the Louis Brown Athletic Center under familiar circumstances — in a deficit.
Rutgers was down, 29-27, to the Knights from Hackensack after the first 20 minutes.
In their first 12 games, the Scarlet Knights have led just three times at the half — by eight against Howard in an 82-70 win, by seven to St. John’s in a 61-59 loss and by three against a then-winless Central Connecticut State team in a 75-59 blowout.
The Scarlet Knights were tied at the half on two other occasions — in the season-opening 72-59 win over Division III Rutgers-Newark and in a tightly-contested 87-84 win over currently 1-9 Central Arkansas.
Laurent believes the reason for Rutgers’ lethargic starts are because the team doesn’t approach the beginning of games as well as it could.
“I feel like we just come out the gates too nonchalant,” Laurent said. “We know what we could do and sometimes we just overlook most teams.”
Jordan points towards the youth of his team as the reason for its lackluster first half performances thus far this season.
“A young team is going to drive you nuts,” he said. “They need to execute, they need to know what the details (are), the details are important … Every little thing means something, and they don’t understand that. Eventually, they will.”
Once the Scarlet Knights step onto the court for the final 20 minutes, their collective game seems to elevate.
This is best evidenced in freshman guard Corey Sanders, who averages 7.8 points in the second half of games against 5.6 in the first. The Lakeland, Florida, native scored 14 of his career-high 21 points in the second half against FDU, including three free throws in the game’s final minute to ice the game.
The key to success in the second half is listening to the advice of his coach at the break and seeing what needs to be improved on from the opening period, according to Sanders.
“I guess we realize what we need to work on,” he said. “Coach (Jordan) comes in and gives us the pointers and the things we need to work on and we always come out and try to execute our best in the second half and that helps us.”
Wednesday’s game against Fairleigh-Dickinson was the only time this season the Scarlet Knights escaped a halftime deficit with a win and one of the few times they’ve come out on top of a tightly contested finish.
Rutgers came back from as much as 12 down in the first half to tie the game up at 36 with 14:05 remaining.
What ensued was a back-and-forth affair where both teams traded baskets until the game reached a 55-55 tie with 5:26 left.
This was surely a worrying sign for fans who followed the Scarlet Knights this season — they were 1-3 in games where both teams were within three points of each other in the final six minutes prior to Wednesday.
But Rutgers hung in and pulled away as soon as it got the chance. It went on a 13-5 run capped off by a thunderous dunk by senior guard Bishop Daniels, who collected the ball on an inbound at halfcourt and attacked the basket like his life depended on it.
After missing vital shots down the stretch in multiple games this season, the Scarlet Knights were relieved to see the ball go through the hoop down the stretch. As simple as it sounds, hitting shots in the late stages of the game was what pushed Rutgers to victory.
“When the ball goes in the basket, it helps you a great deal, no matter if you’re playing great defense or if they’re scoring, you can answer them back,” Jordan said. “If you’re playing great defense and you can’t score, the winds going to come out of your sails eventually and you’re going to falter, but when the ball goes in the basket for you — Corey was putting it in there and Jonathan made some plays and we made our free throws — it juices you up on the defensive end. It gets your energy going and your spirits up and that means a lot in finishing off a game.”
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