Rutgers lets upset bid of No. 15 Wisconsin slip away in final minutes
NEW YORK CITY— You know the story.
It’s happened countless times this season — the Rutgers men’s basketball team has an exceptional first half, takes a surprising lead over a formidable opponent into the break, only for it to unravel in the opening minutes of the second half.
It transpired at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) against Northwestern, in the Prudential Center against Seton Hall and at the Carver-Hawkeye Arena against Iowa.
Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the Scarlet Knights had another one of those first halves. They held No. 15 Wisconsin to 20 points on 20 percent shooting, forced seven turnovers and held a 5 point lead entering the break.
But this time felt different.
Rutgers passed the first test, responding to Wisconsin retaking the lead midway through the second half by breaking an eight-minute scoring drought with a 10-1 run.
It held Ethan Happ, who scored 10 of the Badgers’ first 13 points and led all scorers with 11 first-half points, to 3 second-half points with three minutes to go.
It had the Badgers on the ropes, holding them — a team shooting 48 percent coming into the contest — to 20 percent shooting, including an eight percent clip from beyond the arc, through the first 37 minutes.
“Nobody could really throw it in the ocean today,” Wisconsin senior guard Bronson Koenig, who entered the game shooting 57.5 percent from three during Big Ten play, said. “For most of the game.”
The Knights took a 9 point lead — its largest of the game — with 3:22 to go, and the large majority of the 8,531 in the crowd at the World’s Most Famous Arena held their breath as comparisons to the 2015 upset of the then-No. 4 Badgers were bubbling in the minds of many.
But it would be a false alarm for Wisconsin and false hope for Rutgers.
Just as they did in Iowa City, the Knights let a potentially huge Big Ten win slip from their grasp. Their exceptional defense would falter late, with Wisconsin finishing regulation on a 13-4 run, hitting four shots in a row and pushing the game to an overtime period in which it led from start to finish.
It would end yet another upset bid from Rutgers (12-10, 1-8) as it fell in a crushing 61-54 loss, this one perhaps the worst of the bunch before it.
“Definitely,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders when asked if he felt his team let this game slip. “I felt pretty comfortable with the lead but playing a good team, you can’t be comfortable. They just did what they had to do to tie it up ... could’ve been different, but the costly mistakes that we made ended up losing the game ... To have the lead and feel comfortable and then to lose, it's just hard. ”
Happ, a top candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, scored 15 of his career-high 31 points in the final eight minutes of the game, including a layup with two seconds remaining to tie the game at 45.
After Sanders, who led his team with 16 points, gave the Knights an early lead in overtime with his first and only three-pointer of the afternoon, Happ responded with three straight lay-ups.
Happ did what he pleased in the extra period against little resistance. With both C.J. Gettys and Ibrahima Diallo in foul trouble with four each entering overtime, Rutgers had no solution for him.
“Terrific angles, great hands, finishes around the basket,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said on Happ's abilities. “He’s tough down there. We tried to wall him up a little bit, we tried to dig down sometimes, he just gets great low post position and he’s relentless.”
It took seven shots and three minutes for Wisconsin (18-3, 7-1) to score its first bucket in the second half, but Rutgers didn’t allow that snowflake to become a full-blown avalanche.
What would normally become a sudden burst of offense from the opposition was instead a slow, quiet 7-2 run from the Badgers as they retook the lead for the first time in the second half. It was a stark contrast from the final 10:36 of the first half in which the Knights kept them without a field goal.
Rutgers responded with its 10-1 run, jumping out to a lead that seemed big enough to be able to hold on and pull off the upset.
But the run came to a screeching halt, with the Knights scoring just 4 points in the final three minutes, only two of which coming off of a single field goal.
It was a rough stretch in a game it shot a decent 35 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three.
"Today wasn't our best offensive game," Sanders said. "Felt like we could've did better running our offense ... it was just a bad offensive day for us."
Pikiell and Rutgers didn't take the hour-long bus ride down I-95 back to Piscataway without being optimistic.
To their credit, the Knights played exceptional defense for the first 37 minutes.
Rutgers held Zak Showalter — who torched the team with 18 points, three steals and two assists a month ago in Madison — to 4 points and five rebounds before he fouled out in overtime.
It held Nigel Hayes — averaging 15 points per game in his last 14 outings, a stretch including his game-high 20 points against the Knights — to 7 points, three of which coming in overtime.
They kept Koenig, their leading scorer with an average of 14.6 points per game, to 10, four of which coming from the free throw line to secure the game down the stretch.
Despite the late explosion, Wisconsin fell well below the 48 percent shooting clip it has averaged this season, converting on just 33 percent of its attempts from the floor. That includes a 12 percent clip from three, well below its average of 37 percent.
The difference, once again, came in the form of excessive turnovers (19) and lackluster free-throw shooting down the stretch, missing four of its last six attempts from the stripe in regulation.
That’s all part of the evolution Pikiell is seeing in his team, one that was validated partially in his team's first Big Ten win over Nebraska a week ago.
He continues to see the progress in practice and in games, and while the final result wasn’t what he wanted, it’d be wrong to say the growth the Knights have seen since falling by 20 a month ago at Wisconsin isn't evident.
For 37 minutes in a home game on a neutral court with the atmosphere of an away game, Rutgers shut down one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
Now it has to learn how to close out the deal.
“We need to continue to learn how to win, finish off games,” Pikiell said. “We haven’t been in this position before and now we’re in it. You need to be in it to win it and the next step is to win these opportunities.”