July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Rutgers showcases skills at MidKnight Madness one month before season opener

Photo by Dimitri Rodriguez and Dimitri Rodriguez |

Corey Sanders throws down the hammer over the Scarlet Knight during MidKnight Madness at the Rutgers Athletic Center Friday night. The dunk earned a perfect score of 10 from all five judges as the sophomore guard edged junior teammate Nigel Johnson for the dunk contest at the showcase for fans.

The Rutgers men’s and women’s basketball teams hosted the first annual “MidKnight Madness” at the Rutgers Athletics Center Friday night, partaking in a number of competitions a little more than a month ahead of both teams’ season openers on November 11.

Just as he did all of last winter, sophomore guard Corey Sanders stole the show at the RAC, all eyes on him as he defeated junior Nigel Johnson in the dunk contest in an emphatic cap to the night.

The Lakeland, Florida, native soared over the Scarlet Knight in his second and final dunk attempt of the contest, earning a second straight perfect score of 50 to take home the trophy ahead of Johnson, junior Deshawn Freeman and sophomore Jonathan Laurent.

“It feels pretty good, you know, I’m used to winning these right here,” Sanders told the Daily Targum, pointing towards the silverware he was awarded for his performance. “I tried to tell Nigel it was going home with me. He thought he was gonna beat me. He came out strong but I had to finish him off.”

The dunk contest was judged by Rutgers head women’s basketball coach C.Vivian Stringer, Athletic Director Pat Hobbs, student-fan group Riot Squad President James Surico, newly named Scarlet Knights’ play-by-play announcer Jerry Recco and superfan Jason Newcomb. They capped off an event first-year head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell hopes to make a yearly tradition.

The evening began with a three-point shooting contest between junior guard Mike Williams, junior college transfer forward Candido Sa and freshmen Matt Bullock — who Sanders credited for the idea for his winning dunk — and Issa Thiam.

Issa, of Dakar, Senegal, got the best of his teammates in the first round — earning some cheers from Hobbs in the process — and would best the winner of the women’s team — sophomore Ashli Jeune — to take the crown.

Standing at 6-foot-9, Thiam provides Rutgers with much-needed height in addition to his shooters touch.

“Unbelievable, right?” Pikiell said of Thiam’s three-point contest performance when asked about it by the Targum. “He can really shoot the ball, he’s 6-foot-9, he’s a great kid, he works hard and people are really gonna like him.”

The three-point contest was followed by a skills competition between teams consisting of a student and member of each basketball team. Sophomore Ibrahima Diallo, junior Shrita Parker and student Unah Magaya emerged as the victorious trio.

Before moving to the nightcap, a student was given the opportunity to win a car by hitting a half-court shot.

And while the student’s attempt from the 'Block R' barely reached the free throw line, a casual attempt from Johnson moments earlier went in as smoothly as a midrange jumper, which triggered one of the many displays of team camaraderie on the night.

Though successful, Johnson was ineligible to win the car, much to the dismay of his roommate who would defeat him in the dunk contest just minutes later after spending the week dishing out friendly trash talk around their apartment.

But regardless of who lost between the probable couple starting in the backcourt for the Knights this winter, they'd be as happy for the other as they would be for themselves had they won.

“That’s my boy, that’s my best friend on the team,” Johnson said of Sanders. “I told him I was gonna win, he said he was gonna win and he came out on top ... I wouldn’t want anyone else to come out on top if it wasn’t me than him.”

The tight knit relationship between Sanders and Johnson is just one within a team united on improving from its disappointing 7-25 overall record and abysmal 1-17 clip in Big Ten play a year ago.

The second-straight season of grotesque blowouts led to Rutgers firing former-head coach Eddie Jordan, a beloved former standout player from the program’s only Final Four team in 1976, as its head coach.

Sanders was one of Jordan’s biggest supporters throughout the season, leading to speculation that the highest scoring freshman in the Big Ten would pack his bags and join him out the door.

But he stayed put in Piscataway and based on his usual loose, candid behavior during warm-ups and constant joking with teammates during the event, it's a decision he's happy he made.

“I love being here. Rutgers is my school, man,” he said. “We had a bad year last year but I’d never let that phase me. We just come back here, work hard. We got new coaches, a new year and we’re still breathing.”

MidKnight Madness is one of the many additions and changes Pikiell is preparing to make in his first season away from Long Island after a successful 11-year tenure at Stony Brook.

The former UConn guard turned the relatively new Division I program from American East Conference bottom-feeders to a conference champion and NCAA Tournament team, a turnaround almost as drastic as the one he’s tasked with in Piscataway.

It’s early days for Pikiell in New Jersey, but all signs point in a positive direction a couple of weeks ahead of his first official game as the Knights’ head coach,

“We had a good practice today so this was the icing (on the cake). The guys like this and they had fun and nobody got hurt so it was a good day,” he said. “(The players) really get along well and they’re excited about the season and they’ve been working real hard so I’m really most pleased with their effort.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports.

Brian Fonseca

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