Rutgers improves to 4-0 with another double-digit win
The final score of the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s 78-65 win over Niagara was as bloated as the three that came before it. The Scarlet Knights dominated Niagara thoroughly in the second half of a fourth-straight, double-digit victory to start the first year of head coach Steve Pikiell’s tenure on the Banks, but it didn't come as easy as the first two.
“Obviously we have to improve in a lot of different areas,” Pikiell said. “But it’s a win, so let’s enjoy it for a second.”
Before the Knights (4-0) buried the Purple Eagles (0-4) with a 16-0 run midway through the second half to take a 57-42 lead. They had to endure an opening half in which the visitors remained glued to them the whole way.
Twice it seemed Rutgers was beginning to pull away before watching Niagara climb back, first losing a 13-9 lead to two quick buckets in the paint, then 19-13 lead it subsequently built to consecutive shots from deep.
When the Knights took a 33-23 lead with 4 minutes remaining in the first half, the Purple Eagles, who were projected to finish last among the 11 teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), didn’t flinch. The visitors finished the first half on a 7-2 run and outscored Rutgers 7-4 to start the second, tying the game at 39 with 16 minutes remaining in the contest.
In a moment where fans expected the team to crumble, the Knights rose to the occasion, scored 16 straight and never looked back.
“After we went on that run, we created some distance in our lead,” said junior guard Nigel Johnson. “I felt like we did a good job closing the game and that’s what we were focused on is finishing.”
The key to Rutgers outlasting Niagara, just as it was in the first three wins, was in its bench. The Knights' reserves outscored their Eagle counterparts 42-3, fueled mostly by a team-high 20 point performance from Johnson.
He was helped by fellow junior guard Mike Williams, who contributed 12 points of his own, with six coming from shots behind the arc, four from the free throw line and the final two inside the paint.
Altogether, Rutgers’ bench outscored its starters 42-36 and contributed 10 of the Knights 16 assists on the day.
“I’m just proud of them,” Pikiell said. “It’s such an important part of being a good basketball team, is having guys ready to play. I didn’t love the energy out of our starting line-up today … it gives us options.”
Johnson spent most of the final quarter of the game playing at point guard in place of sophomore Corey Sanders, who was ejected for the first time in his career after receiving two technicals, the second of which due to unsportsmanlike conduct.
"We, as a team, have to stop refereering the game," Pikiell said. "Corey and everybody have to play the game. We're not refs."
The win brought Rutgers to 4-0, a record it hadn’t held since the 2000-01 season. Pikiell became the first head coach in program history to open his tenure in Piscataway this well.
With each passing game, it feels like the man who took Stony Brook from a up-and-coming program to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament is making similar strides with his new team.
The big picture, the final destination remains outside of Pikiell’s vision, though — all he’s focused on is North Texas coming to town Wednesday night.
“None,” Pikiell said when asked of the significance of being 4-0. “We gotta start working for the next game. These guys know we got a long week ahead of us with not a lot of time to prepare so we’ll start working on that game next.”