Sophomore guard stars as Rutgers sends seniors out right way
Mike Williams wouldn't let it happen again.
As the Rutgers men's basketball team honored its four seniors on Saturday in the regular season finale at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the sophomore guard stepped up and took the reins of the Scarlet Knights' offense.
The result, a 75-52 throttling of Minnesota by Rutgers in front of 4,473 at the RAC, relieved the Knights (7-24, 1-17) from the agony of their program-record losing streak of 17 games — 32 in Big Ten play — finally came to an end and in dominant fashion.
But there was more to it than that to Williams.
His career-high 29 points, fueled by his trigger-happy shot selection from beyond the 3-point arc, proved to be the explosive played Rutgers needed to blow the undermanned Golden Gophers (8-22, 2-16) and return to the win column for the first time since Dec. 28.
Williams, who had six points in seven minutes of last year's Senior Day festivities against then-No. 10 Maryland, refused to see Bishop Daniels and Greg Lewis leave Piscataway the same way Kadeem Jack and Myles Mack did as the Knights underwent a similar rut on their way to a 15-game losing streak to end the season.
"It meant a lot to me because, last year, we couldn't win for Myles (Mack) and Kadeem (Jack), so it left a bad taste in my mouth," Williams said. "So I wanted to be different, I wanted to win for (the seniors) because it's their last home game. They will never play here again. I got me more games to come, so I wanted to make sure they go out on top."
For as much as his body told him to shut things down, Greg Lewis wasn't stopping.
The fifth-year senior center, making his iron-man-like 30th start of the year despite countless hours of treatment for a knee injury plaguing him just about all season long, willed his way through one last time out on the floor for a game-high 13 rebounds to pace Rutgers in the paint against Minnesota.
"They was a little wobbly," Lewis said of his legs as he plays through the injury. "I just tried to give it all I had, man."
Lewis received some help from his classmates with Daniels pitching in 12 points and dishing out seven assists, while graduate transfer Omari Grier also got the nod in the starting lineup for the 18th time of the season and added eight more points on the heels of two treys.
Even walk-on guard Jalen Hyde saw early time off the bench. Normally way at the bottom of the rotation, Hyde entered the game for the Knights late in the first half before eventually playing four minutes to round of Rutgers' seniors seeing the court on Saturday.
Hyde even got a look on the final shot of the game. With the Knights well ahead of the Golden Gophers, Hyde pulled up and his attempt rimmed out.
But to Hyde, called "the heart and soul of the team" by freshman forward Jonathan Laurent, having his family in Piscataway to see him a part of Rutgers' end to the painful skid was the perfect ending — even if the shot didn't fall.
"It was cool, you know," Hyde said. "It's kind of something that you dream about there, being able to take that last shot, the crowd behind me, fans behind me, had my teammates and support. It didn't go, but that's just how I write it up in life. I could be any happier with how the game ended (with a win)."
After riding out to Minneapolis with six scholarship players and the top-scorer among Big Ten freshmen in guard Corey Sanders, Rutgers received a Senior Day gift on a silver platter when Minnesota came to town.
The Golden Gophers, without their only three scholarship guards due to suspension and senior forward Joey King due to a foot injury, went with just five scholarship players at their disposal for their rematch with the Knights.
As if the 23-point drubbing didn't make it obvious enough, the Golden Gophers struggled severely. Minnesota had two points in the first seven minutes. At the half, the Golden Gophers were a paltry 6-for-40 from the field — a 15-percent clip — and couldn't get anything going.
Rutgers, meanwhile, didn't hold anything back.
Accustomed to playing undermanned as injuries and suspensions decimated the roster over the course of the down season, the Knights were as close to full strength as they can get with nine scholarship players on deck.
With the shoe on the other foot, Rutgers ran away with it, striking first on a layup from freshman guard Corey Sanders and pouring it on for the remainder of the afternoon to bury Minnesota with no mercy.
"It is what it is. I really don't care too much about (Minnesota) being undermanned and things like that," Sanders said. "We've been undermanned all year ... but we try to play hard and beat everybody that we played, so that really helped us out. The basketball gods was on our side today."
While the Knights are sure to come back to reality with an increase in competition as the Big Ten Tournament opens with Rutgers as the 14-seed to play 11-seed Nebraska, head coach Eddie Jordan reiterated that getting a win back on the schedule wasn't as much of a cakewalk as it seemed.
"It is just an example of a team that has been short handed and they have been going through it for three games. We have been going through it for 23 games, so that is what happens," he said. "I thought we have done a great service to our program for what we have done being short-handed the way we were and we were short handed with big people in a big league and we gave great effort and we were competing at a high level for us so I am proud of what we have gone through. The Ws and Ls (don’t) measure what we have done."