Freshman breaks program record in heartbreaking loss in triple overtime
After 388 days, the Rutgers men’s basketball team appeared to be headed for its first Big Ten conference win in 24 tries.
The Scarlet Knights led for most of regulation in Wednesday’s game against Illinois after a blistering start in the first half, but they had to play catchup after the Fighting Illini took the lead with 3:41 remaining.
Three overtimes and a pair of game-tying shots from freshman guard Corey Sanders later, the Knights (6-17, 0-10) were unable the losing streak, falling 110-101 in a heartbreaker.
Even a historic performance from its best player couldn’t end the streak for Rutgers.
Sanders’s 39 points were the most by a freshman in program history.
Quincy Douby was the last freshman to put up 30 for the Knights, scoring 35 against Iowa State in the semifinals of the 2004 National Invitational Tournament.
Sanders also dished a career-high 12 assists — the first time a Rutgers player got at least 10 assists since Marquis Webb in 2005 — to earn his first double-double on the Banks.
The Lakeland, Florida, native not only scored the most points — he scored the most crucial.
Down by one after leading for most of regulation, Sanders was fouled on a drive and put on the line with a chance to win the game for his team. He hit the first free-throw to tie the game at 75, but missed the second, forcing the game to head to overtime.
In the first overtime period, the Knights were down by 7 with 43 seconds remaining. A trey from graduate transfer Omari Grier sandwiched between four free throws from Sanders had Rutgers within 2 points of its visitors.
Khalid Lewis went to the line for Illinois with 11 seconds remaining with a chance to ice the game. He hit the first of two free throws to put the Illini up one, but missed the second, giving the Knights a chance to send the game to a second overtime.
Out of a timeout, Sanders received the ball and chucked up a three. While the shot hit off the front of the rim, it bounced back in his direction, granting him one more chance.
In five seconds that felt like an eternity to the 4,500 at the Rutgers Athletic Center, Sanders dribbled outside of the arc, threw up an off-balance shot with a hand in his face and drained a three, sending his teammates and the fans into a frenzy.
“(The players) came back to the bench, they were jacked up. Everyone was involved, everyone was excited,” said head coach Eddie Jordan. “I’m glad for our fans and our team that we got excited again and things like that could happen for us.”
While he’s happy to enter the program’s record books, Sanders would’ve traded it in for hitting that free throw and winning the game..
“I love breaking records. I told coach Jordan I was going to come for one of his,” he said. “In this game, records are meant to be broken. I broke one tonight, so I’m happy about it, but still, I’m upset I missed that free-throw.”
While Sanders led the show, he wasn’t alone scoring.
Freshman forward Jonathan Laurent contributed a career-high 23 points despite missing a lot of time after falling awkwardly on a drive to the basket. A scary moment for all at the RAC, Jordan confirmed after the game it was only a cramp.
Graduate transfer Omari Grier continued the momentum of his past performance with another double-digit scoring night, dropping 18 points in 38 minutes of action.
The fourth-highest scorer for the Knights was sophomore guard Mike Williams.
The Brooklyn, New York, native continued his recent success with 15 points against the Fighting Illini. Williams led Rutgers in scoring the past two contests on its road trip to Michigan.
He felt he could’ve contributed more had his night not been cut short, though, as he fouled out with 11 seconds remaining in the first overtime.
Watching the game from the sidelines in the final two periods of play, Williams felt he could’ve ended the game sooner had he been on the floor instead of sitting on the bench.
“It really hurt (to have fouled out) because I felt like I could’ve done something,” he said. “I ain’t play well in the second half but I just felt like overtime, I could’ve did a little bit more. I could’ve scored, I could’ve got rebounds, could’ve got a steal, could’ve passed the ball for a basket, but I’m just sitting on the bench praying that we could pull it out.”