Rutgers exceeds last season's win total with most complete performance of season
Steve Pikiell’s weeklong trip down memory lane got off to as good a start as he could hope.
The Rutgers head men’s basketball coach saw his current team dismantle Central Connecticut State, where he was an assistant coach from 1997-2001, in a 79-37 shellacking Tuesday night, four days before traveling to his old stomping grounds in Stony Brook, New York.
It marked the 200th win of his career as a head coach.
The Scarlet Knights (8-1) pushed past last season’s win total with their most complete performance so far this season, keeping their perfect home record intact with a night requiring a full page of records to fully appreciate.
It was the most lopsided win Rutgers has had against a Division I opponent since defeating Maryland Eastern Shore 92-50 in December 2005.
The Knights held the Blue Devils (2-5) to less than 40 points and 25 percent shooting, the first time its achieved either of those defensive stats against a Division I team since holding Pittsburgh to 39 in November of 2015.
They had 24 assists on 35 baskets, the most helpers in a single contest since garnering 27 against UNBC in 2011.
Rutgers shot 64.8 percent from the floor, its best clip since a school-record 69.6 percent night against Saint Joseph's in 1991, the last season the Knights reached the NCAA Tournament.
Finally, they had eight dunks, the most since the slam dunk contest at MidKnight Madness during the preseason.
“We were locked in, thought we had a good scouting report and executed it," Pikiell said. "Glad for a good win here at the RAC and a well-earned day off tomorrow for our guys."
Junior forward Deshawn Freeman opened the scoring with a layup a minute in, and after letting the Blue Devils climb back to tie the game at 6, the Knights led since.
They led by double-digits since the 4:36 mark of the first half. By halftime, they were doubling up CCSU with a 42-21 lead heading into the break.
Rutgers’ dominance only grew from there, its lead ballooning to as high as 44 before settling at 42, double that of its halftime lead.
Rutgers was simply too big, too fast, too talented for Central Connecticut State.
Guards Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson penetrated the Blue Devils’ defensive zone with ease in the opening 20 minutes, a move usually ending with them finding a big man in the paint to exploit the various size mismatches where they held the advantage.
Of the first 10 field goals it converted, nine came with an assist, most of which going to either Freeman or senior center C.J. Gettys.
The tandem known as Ghost Gang were flawless from the floor in the first half, each racking up 8 points on 4-for-4 shooting. And while Gettys eventually missed, snapping a streak of 16 consecutive makes going back to his game-winner against Hartford three games ago, Freeman finished the night with a perfect 6-for-6 clip, 12 points, six boards and two assists.
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"When you got two big men that can shoot or score the ball at an efficient rate … and block shots like they have been, it’s good to play with them," Johnson said. "It lets you know that when you get the ball to the bigs, they’re going to capitalize on it."
When they didn’t dish a pass, Sanders or Johnson would take it to the hole themselves, blowing by defenders before banking in shots off the glass. As the game went on and CCSU grew tired with each passing minute in the second half, Rutgers wouldn’t even need to expend energy penetrating the visitor’s zone. The Knights had 10 steals in the final 20 minutes, leading to an open court with no defender in the way of a rim begging to get dunked on.
What began with back-to-back dunks off steals from junior guard Mike Williams and Johnson — who had a game-high 16 points — in the final minute of the second half turned into an impromptu dunk contest in the second half.
By the end of the night, the rim was begging for mercy from Sanders, who had three dunks in the second half, the most emphatic of which coming on an alley-oop pass from Williams.
“Tonight was dunk city, man,” Sanders said. “It was just really exciting for the fans too, and it was exciting for me … That’s what we expect and I hope we get more of those.”
By then, the game was in hand. Soon after, walk-ons Jake Dadika, Khalil Batie and Aaren Smith checked in for the first time since the third game of the season against Depaul, draining the final minutes of the win.
When the final buzzer sounded, Pikiell had defeated his former team and pupil — CCSU head coach Donyell Marshall played under Pikiell when he was an assistant at UConn.
With 200 wins in hand, he'll take the trip up to Long Island to take on Stony Brook, the program he single-handedly built over his 11 seasons there prior to coming to Piscataway.
But don't expect him to spend any time thinking about the emotional significance of the week.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about those things," Pikiell said. "I wanna start breaking down tape and get these guys ready to go ... I didn't know (today was his 200th win). I'm just worried about the next one."