Notebook: Free throw struggles continue to haunt Rutgers in overtime loss to No. 15 Wisconsin
NEW YORK — The free throw line has been one of the outright Achilles' heels for the Rutgers men's basketball team this season.
So much so that head coach Steve Pikiell didn't feel comfortable when the Scarlet Knights held a 9-point advantage over No. 15 Wisconsin with 3:19 left in regulation.
Pikiell knew there were crucial free throws down the stretch likely awaiting Rutgers that entered Madison Square Garden on Saturday as the 12th worst free-throw shooting team in the country with a sub-63 percent clip.
And just as they have throughout Big Ten play, the Knights' inefficiency from the free-throw line allowed them to squander an opportunity to capture a signature Big Ten win.
Rutgers connected on seven of its first 10 attempts from the line, but misfired on four of its six free throws in the final 105 seconds of regulation, as Wisconsin reeled off an 11-4 run to tie the game with two seconds left and carried that momentum into overtime for a 61-54 win over the Knights.
"A 9-point lead means nothing," Pikiell said. "I watched (Wisconsin) play Minnesota. They've got the best shooter in the nation (in Bronson Koenig). You've gotta play 40 minutes. And we don't shoot free throws well. So a 9-point lead for us isn't really a 9-point lead when you shoot 54 percent from the line. If we shot 83 percent like Purdue, then a 9-point lead I'd feel pretty good (about). But I never feel good in any of these games with the offensive firepower that these teams have."
Two consecutive scores inside by sophomore Ethan Happ, who finished with a game-high 32 points, cut into Rutgers’ late 9-point lead. Trailing by 5 points with only 1:45 remaining, Wisconsin immediately went into a full court zone press following Happ’s second bucket.
The Knights easily found the hole in the press as junior guard Nigel Johnson fired a pass down court to junior forward Candido Sa, who was by himself at the basket. Sa turned and rose for a dunk, but was fouled from behind at the last second by Nigel Hayes.
The dunk attempt was to no avail and Sa, a 41 percent free-throw shooter, missed both of his attempts from the line.
"You gotta make some free throws, I think that's important," Pikiell said. "Down the stretch Nigel made a great pass to Candido. Maybe a year from now that'll be a dunk, instead it's missed free throws. Just some different opportunities that we have to capitalize on and we have to learn how to win against really good teams. That's not an easy thing to do."
Wisconsin and Happ kept their momentum going on the subsequent possession, as the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate scored inside for the third consecutive time. Much like the last Wisconsin score, the Badgers pressed, Rutgers broke it with ease and junior forward Deshawn Freeman was fouled down court while attacking the rim.
Freeman split his two attempts from the line, extending the Knights' advantage to four with 79 seconds remaining.
The teams would trade buckets before Koenig knocked down a triple to bring Wisconsin within one and 32 seconds on the clock.
Rutgers turned the ball over on the subsequent in-bounds pass, but Koenig misfired on his three-point attempt. Johnson corralled the rebound and was immediately fouled. With 20 seconds left, Johnson walked the length of the court with a chance to give the Knights a 3-point lead.
But Johnson split his trip to the charity stripe, giving Rutgers a 2-point lead and setting up Happ's tying lay-up with two seconds left to send the game into overtime.
"To have a lead, feel comfortable and then to lose. It's just hard," said sophomore guard Corey Sanders.
Saturday marked the second consecutive game where missed free throws proved costly in a game where the Knights came up short of taking down a ranked opponent.
Rutgers was coming off of a loss to Maryland where it missed more free throws (14) than the amount of points it was defeated by the No. 22 Terrapins (12).
But even more than the Knights' misses from the line late in regulation against Wisconsin, Pikiell was distraught with two offensive rebounds off missed Wisconsin free throws Rutgers allowed before the Badgers went on that final run to push the game into overtime.
The Badgers converted on their second offensive rebound off of a missed free throw, which came in the form of a Happ score inside that broke a seven-plus minute field goal drought and started a string of 8 straight points, and 10 overall, for the talented big in the final four-plus minutes of regulation.
For a team that struggles to generate offense —the Knights shot 35 percent overall, made three triples and missed seven free throws — allowing two offensive rebounds off missed free throws stood out to Pikiell more than the missed free throws down the stretch because they put an already challenged offensive team at a greater disadvantage.
"Everyone will get caught up in that last possession," Pikiell said. "We got two free throw block outs that we don't get the rebound. No one remembers those plays. (Ethan Happ) made a great play. ... I'll go back to those block outs. Those are things we can control, talk about and teach. You can't control free throws going in sometimes, you can't control the shot going in sometimes, but you can control those things. Those are areas that every mistake we make we can't produce enough points to make up for some of those mistakes. Teams like Wisconsin can. They can make up for a defensive error. We gotta continue to be in these games and we'll learn how to win them."