Rutgers runs out of gas in 110-101 triple-overtime thriller at home against Illinois
As his teammates dog-piled onto him as he lay on the hardwood floor, Corey Sanders soaked in the atmosphere having just done the unthinkable.
Despite an improbable, seven-point deficit that seemingly drowned the Rutgers men's basketball team near the end of the first overtime period, the Scarlet Knights willed their way back in unconventional fashion.
Sanders, who had done it all for Rutgers up until it climbed back into the ballgame on its final possession, misfired on a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
But the freshman guard hustled to get his own rebound, retreated all the way back behind the arc and fired once more.
The off-balanced desperation heave splashed through the net and the 4,500 in attendance at the Rutgers Athletic Center erupted. Sanders's conversion forced another chance for the Knights to win a game they had so many chances to take earlier in regulation.
But all Sanders could think about at that moment was what he still had left to accomplish.
"Let's fight again. Another five minutes," he said. "That's what coach was telling us, another five minutes to go out there and try and win the game. And that's all I can ask for, try to give my team another five minutes."
Rutgers received another five minutes — 10, in fact — as the Wednesday night contest with Illinois dipped into three overtimes at the RAC.
But the Knights ultimately fell short in the 55-minute thriller on their way to a 110-101 defeat in Piscataway at the hands of the Fighting Illini.
"I think we ran out of gas," said freshman forward Jonathan Laurent. "If you look at the stat sheet, most of us played 50 minutes, most of us played 40 ... I know they had the same amount of players as us, but they got us this game."
Laurent muscled his way to the rim for high-percentage shots all night long, posting 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting with eight rebounds to help pace Rutgers in the triple-overtime marathon.
Sanders, meanwhile, led the way and nearly racked up a triple-double with 39 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. The career-high scoring total was the most for a freshman since Quincy Douby's 35 points in the 2004 NIT semifinal against Iowa State.
But as much as the Lakeland, Florida, native did to carry the Knights (6-17, 0-10) over the course of the back-and-forth battle with the Illini (11-12, 3-7), even he admitted that he didn't do enough to put Rutgers over the top when he could have.
At the line with three seconds to go, Sanders had a chance to give the Knights the lead after sinking the first free throw from the line to knot the score up at 75 apiece.
But as the second shot rattled out, Sanders knew right then and there that he missed a golden opportunity to put an end to a skid that now grows to 10 games — sandwiched between a Big Ten losing streak that hit 25 since last year's upset of then-No. 4 Wisconsin.
"I'm just still upset about the free throw I missed, man," he said. "All that wouldn't have happened if I just hit the free throw ... that's the thing that I'm regretting right now is the free throw. So all that is good, but man, I could've won the game. We didn't win, so it's kind of like it's good, but it's not enough."
While Rutgers managed to edge Illinois on the boards with a 35-34 rebounding advantage and battled its way to a 54-36 mark in the paint, it lacked consistent production from all members of its seven-man rotation at the end of the night.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Hill stepped up late for the Illini with a team-high 32 points — 17 of which came on free throws — and Jalen Coleman-Lands added 26 more on the scoring sheet to complement their late push.
And as much as Eddie Jordan commended the Knights for their effort throughout regulation and beyond, the third-year head coach was blunt on how they managed to come up short.
"I want all of our top-seven guys to play at a high level and we didn't get that again," Jordan said. "For us to get a win in this league, all seven guys have to play at the highest talent level that they have. And we don't have the couple of guys doing it, it'll be a struggle for us."
While the gauntlet of the Big Ten is largely out of the way and the schedule softens up down the stretch, the next one up on the slate is a trip out to Lincoln, Nebraska, for a 2:30 p.m. ET tip-off on Saturday against the same Cornhuskers squad that handed Rutgers a 34-point drubbing at home.
And as much as the Knights have never been in the thick of a battle as brutally contested as the one they went through against the Illini, they understand how close they were before it ultimately slipped away.
"Everything's a learning point for us and everything just makes us grow," Sanders said. "I think we played real, real good team basketball tonight, so we can't complain about these losses. People know we're undermanned — that's no excuse — but there's reasons to why this (losing) streak is like this and we're just doing our best with it and we went out fighting every night. That's all we can ask for, that's all our coaches can ask for and that's all we can do."