July 23, 2019 | 73° F

Steve Pikiell era begins with resounding 29 point win over Molloy

Photo by Jeffrey Gomez |

Junior forward Deshawn Freeman dribbles down court on a fast break in Rutgers' season-opening 86-57 win over Malloy Friday. Named the team captain a day prior, Freeman led the Knights with his first career double-double, factoring 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Looking at last year’s team and this year’s team - it’s Knight and Day.

The Rutgers men’s basketball team (1-0) made new head coach Steve Pikiell proud Friday night with a commanding 86-57 win over Molloy (0-1).

The Pikiell era has officially begun, and after a 7-26 record last season under Eddie Jordan, there seems to be a newfound energy wafting around the Rutgers Athletic Center.

“‘Knight and Day,’ that’s our slogan,” said junior guard Mike Williams. “You know, celebrate this moment tonight, and then tomorrow, get right back it in practice for Drexel on Sunday.”

And the Scarlet Knights certainly have cause for celebrating, as the team held absolute control from the opening tip.

It didn’t take long for the Knights to get going, as junior forward Deshawn Freeman, who was named captain earlier in the week, christened his captaincy with an and-one for the opening bucket of the 2016-17 campaign.

Freeman nabbed the first double-double of his career Friday with 13 points and 10 rebounds. After missing a large chunk of last season due to a knee injury, Freeman could not be any happier to get back on the court and be the “C” this team needs.

“Since last year, it’s been a while so to be back playing, it’s exciting,” Freeman said. “Especially to get a win, that’s another big part. It made me feel good.”

The game opened up fairly sloppy on both ends, with each side committing turnover after turnover in the early going. Rutgers soon established a lead though, thanks to Freeman’s excellent play on both sides of the ball. The captain also picked up three blocks and two steals on the day.

A 7-0 Molloy run cut the score to 14-11, but Mike Williams kicked off his monumental day, sinking three in a row from downtown to run the scoreline up to 30-20 in favor of the Knights.

On Williams, Pikiell said he was “huge off the bench” and “did a really great job in helping us.”

And so went the story Friday night, as the wealth was spread across the board for Rutgers on the evening. Sanders, last year’s standout, took a pass-first approach and finished the day with eight assists.

“I’m just happy,” Pikiell said. “These guys have worked hard, and they played defense, and it was a total team effort - everyone came into the game and helped us.”

Rutgers went into the halftime break up 35-25, and coming into the second half, the squad looked poised to continue its good form.

But the Lions had other answers, thanks to some prolific three-point shooting, as the side went 7-for-21 from beyond the arc, which brought the deficit down to 45-40 early in the second half.

But Williams had an answer.

The 6-foot-2 guard out of Brooklyn, New York, connected on two more threes, as he finished 5-for-8 from three-point land.

As the clock wound down, the Knights had some help from their resident big man, senior center CJ Gettys. Gettys pounded the interior midway through the second half, grittily working through defenders and getting his close-range shots to roll. His line on the night consisted of 11 points and six boards.

“He’s really got a nice touch around the basket,” Pikiell said. “He plays with some energy, I like it, he’s got a little swagger.”

Gettys and company pushed Rutgers out to an 18-0 run late in the second half, as the side amassed a 70-46 edge over Molloy with under 10 minutes left.

Junior guard Nigel Johnson capped off the Knights’ run with a breakaway one-handed slam, commanding the RAC into a frenzy.

The closing minutes saw Rutgers continue to apply pressure and get to the foul line, and the Piscataway side was finally able to wrap things up, finishing with an 86-57 defeat over Molloy.

The Knights have plenty to be excited about in regards to the upcoming season and their play Friday night, though Pikiell still found room for adjustment. As mentioned earlier, the Lions found their rhythm with the three ball early in the second half, and Pikiell took exception to that.

“We gotta defend, and we held them under 40 percent, one of our goals,” Pikiell said. “Thirty-one percent from three, we’ve gotta get that down. And we fouled too much, so we’ve gotta spend a little time, making sure we defend without fouling.”

In what could be considered the most pure team win this Rutgers side has had in a while - exactly half of its points came from the bench - all cylinders were firing.

And behind a team win emerges an on-the-court leader like Deshawn Freeman. In his first collegiate game in almost a year, Freeman showed Pikiell why the captain’s armband fits just right on him.

And the players? They’re just happy to have him back.

“We missed you, Deshawn,” Williams said as the postgame press conference came to a close.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

Jon Spilletti

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