Rutgers ends record skid with emphatic 75-52 win over depleted Minnesota
Heading into its final game of the season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team didn’t have much to play for.
The Scarlet Knights were guaranteed the 14th seed in the Big Ten Tournament following a second consecutive last-place finish in their new conference due to an 0-17 start to conference play.
Meanwhile, their opponent was just one spot above them in the standings with two conference wins, one of which came against the Knights.
But the one thing Rutgers had to play for — pride — was enough motivation.
Led by sophomore guard Mike Williams, the Knights avoided being the first Big Ten team without a conference win since Northwestern in 1999-2000 with a 75-52 win over Minnesota on Senior Day Saturday.
The win — which came 418 days after Rutgers' last conference win — snaps a program record 17-game losing streak set Wednesday when the Knights fell to No. 2 Michigan State in another blowout loss, 97-66.
“We finally got one," said senior center Greg Lewis, one of four seniors who were honored before tip-off. "It's been a long road ... I'm so happy for the school, for the fans (and) for the young guys more importantly.”
Rutgers (7-24, 1-17) took control of the game early and never let up, outscoring the Golden Gophers (8-22, 2-16) by 25 in the first 11 minutes and 14 seconds to take a commanding 29-4 lead.
Williams contributed 16 of his game-high 29 points in the initial stretch, hitting his first four shots from field and the free throw line.
“I took my first shot and it went in and I just felt confident,” Williams said. "Then the next one went in, I just felt like Steph Curry at that point."
The Knights took a 40-15 lead into the half. While its 46 percent clip played a large role in Rutgers' largest halftime lead of the season, it was helped by Minnesota’s atrocious 15 percent clip in the same half.
The Gophers’ struggles make sense when looking at the situation they faced in Piscataway.
They had just five scholarship players available after senior guard Joey King (11.6 points per game) fractured his right foot in the closing minutes of the Gophers’ contest against Wisconsin Wednesday.
The injury came the day after head coach Richard Pitino suspended three players, including leading scorer Nate Mason (13.8 ppg), for the remainder of the season as a result of the players’ involvement in a sexually explicit video being posted on guard Kevin Dorsey’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.
After spending most of its season without a number of scholarship players, the Knights felt no pity for their opponents.
“They’ve been (shorthanded) for three games, we’ve been going through it for 23 games, so that’s what happens,” said head coach Eddie Jordan on the situation. “I thought we did a great service for what we’ve done being shorthanded the way we were (all season).”
Bishop Daniels didn’t have much sympathy for the Gophers either. The senior guard and his team made sure to take advantage when the script was flipped.
“Nobody gave us a chance when we had our players out, so of course, we couldn’t (let up),” Daniels said. “We coming out here to win … it was our turn. Like coach said, the basketball Gods met us halfway and we went out and got the W tonight.”
Rutgers expanded on its dominance in the second half, as it blew the lead as high as 30 with a 7-2 run to start the period.
Four players scored in the run, including Daniels.
The Raleigh, North Carolina, native had the play of the game in the stretch, putting Minnesota walk-on guard Darin Haugh on skates as he went coast-to-coast for a lay up.
After a period where both teams combined to miss 15 of 17 shots over five minutes and 10 seconds, Williams sunk two straight threes before freshman guard Corey Sanders hit another to push the Knights’ lead to 31 points.
From that point, Rutgers controlled the game until the final horn as Minnesota was only able to bring itself within 21 in the final seven minutes.
The win added some wind under the Knights’ sails as they prepare for the Big Ten Tournament.
Rutgers opens the competition in the first round Wednesday against the 11th seed, which will be decided between Nebraska or Penn State tomorrow.
With Jordan’s job being discussed, as his third year on the helm comes to a close the next time the Knights lose, he could use every win he could get to build his case for a fourth year on the Banks.
A win in the Big Ten Tournament would add even more weight to the endorsement he received from his star recruit.
“I'm a big coach Jordan fan. That's my man," said Sanders. "I know this win is taking a little pressure off him, but we're still back at it. We're trying to get more wins going into the Big Ten Tournament. We know we're the underdogs, but anything is possible. We're working. I'm working for him."