Rutgers uses late run to defeat Steve Pikiell's former team
STONY BROOK, N.Y. — The scene was one Steve Pikiell was all too familiar with at Island Federal Credit Union Arena.
Stony Brook had hit two quick 3-pointers in the first minute of the second half to push a halftime lead of a single point to seven within the blink of an eye, sending the 4,009 in the seats into a frenzy as they roared the loudest they had all night.
It was a sight seen commonly over the past 11 years for the Seawolves and their former head coach. Only this time, Pikiell was the one on the visitors sideline stopping play with a timeout rather than the home coach rallying the crowd behind his team.
The Rutgers head men’s basketball coach saw his former team begin to slowly steal a win away from his current one, so he called a timeout to settle the storm and give his team some room to breathe. And after taking a couple more punches in the form of two layups to complete a 10-1 run from Stony Brook, the Scarlet Knights responded with a sweeping 15-0 run of their own to retake the lead.
It would be the last of seven lead changes in the game, as Rutgers withheld some late surges from the Seawolves — including a missed 3-pointer in the final five seconds that would've tied the game at 69 — to hold on for a 71-66 win last Saturday night on Long Island to improve to 9-1 on the season.
The loss was just the ninth Stony Brook suffered on its home court in the last five years.
“We gutted one out again,” Pikiell said postgame, a winner of 65 of the last 73 games he’s coached at the Island Federal Credit Union Arena. “We were down. We keep fighting, we’ve done it all year ... I knew this would be tough and I told our guys that. You learn the hard way sometimes, so we just fought it out at the end.”
Leading the charge was junior Nigel Johnson, who scored 4 of his career-high 21 points and dished 1 of his 2 assists during the run. The guard also played a crucial role in the Knights' ability to maintain the lead it built with the run, hitting six consecutive free throws after Rutgers had gone 3-for-8 beforehand.
"I just knew how important it was for him, just coming back to his old stomping grounds where he used to coach at so I just knew even though he didn’t really talk much about it, I knew personally it was a big win he wanted to get,” Johnson said of his motivation for his career night. “He was upset at halftime, so I knew from there we needed to find a way to win.”
The turnaround in form from the line would be crucial as the Knights wouldn’t hit a single field goal in the final eight minutes of the game following the run.
Just as Johnson kept the lead intact during the stretch with his play from the free throw line, fellow junior guard Mike Williams sealed the win by knocking down a pair from the charity strip with three seconds remaining.
“I had to tell myself that I’ve been here before,” he said of how he kept a cool head with opposing fans and cheerleaders screaming in front of him. “Just another day, I’m at the (Rutgers Athletic Center). Just gotta think of myself like I’m at the RAC, and that’s what I did.”
Pikiell said postgame that the plan was to take advantage of Stony Brook’s tendency to give up points inside the arc, an area Rutgers has excelled in throughout its first nine games. That’s exactly what the Knights did during the run, with 12 of their 34 total points in the paint being scored in the stretch.
Senior center C.J. Gettys began using his size to back down his defender in the post, guards Johnson and sophomore Corey Sanders used their speed in transition to push the pace and take advantage of 2-on-1 matchups and junior forward Deshawn Freeman threw in a dunk on the offensive end to compliment the four boards and two blocks he picked up in the stretch.
All of it came as a result of work on the defensive end, as they held a Seawolves team that shot 50 percent in the first half without a field goal for five full minutes.
“Just our defense. We were able to get stops,” Sanders said of the key to the 15-0 run. “They were taking a lot of 3-pointers, we were closing out.”
Rutgers dominated inside after slowing down from outside. The Knights were unrecognizable in the opening 10 minutes of the game as they fired from all cylinders from beyond the arc. In one instance, the visitors had a 67 percent clip from downtown, with players who struggled to shoot all year like Sanders and freshman guard Issa Thiam knocking down deep shots with ease.
A lower volume of shots from outside was by design from Pikiell, who said he wasn't satisfied with the team "chucking 3-pointers" regardless of the fact they were falling in.
But even with Rutgers' having its best day of the season from beyond the arc, it paled in comparison to how well Pikiell's former team was shooting it from deep.
The Seawolves finished the day with a 45 percent clip from downtown, scoring 39 of their 66 points from 3-point shots. They hit half of their 12 first-half attempts from deep, led by a perfect 3-for-3 from Roland Nyama.
"(He) looked like Michael Jordan," Pikiell said of his former player in the first half. "I said ‘Man, I was here for a couple of years with ya, I didn’t have a lot of those outings.'”
But he, like his team, would cool down slightly in the second half.
Stony Brook still shot a respectable 41 percent from three in the final 20 minutes, but it wouldn't be enough. It fired its final attempt down 3 points with 10 seconds remaining, the ball rolling around the rim before falling out and into the hands of Williams.
He was subsequently fouled, and after hitting his final two free throws, guaranteed the Knights would improve to 9-1 and continue its impressive start.
Though he looked back fondly of the 11 years he spent in Stony Brook when fielding questions of his homecoming post game, with the first and only obligated road game against his former team in the books, Pikiell won't be seeking anymore trips to Long Island anytime soon.
"They won’t see us back here soon," Pikiell said. "I can tell you that."