Late struggles continue to doom Rutgers in loss to Michigan in game of role reversal
It was opposite day in Piscataway Wednesday night.
At least that’s what it felt like as the Rutgers men’s basketball team switched roles with visiting Michigan.
The Wolverines, who were on pace to set a program record in free throw shooting, shot 61 percent, equal to what the Scarlet Knights were averaging entering the game. Meanwhile, the hosts hit 77 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe.
Michigan, whose 9.4 turnover per game average was the lowest in the nation when it entered the Rutgers Athletic Center, conceded possession 11 times while Rutgers coughed the ball up just seven times.
The Wolverines countered by dominating the Knights, the best offensive rebounding team in the Big Ten, by winning the battle of the boards by seven.
Keeping with the opposite day theme, Rutgers trailed for the first 32 minutes. It wasn't until the under-8 timeout that the Knights took their first lead, using a 20-6 run to wipe away a game-high 10 point deficit. Michigan would retake the lead shortly after but it would remain a back-and-forth affair as Rutgers would keep themselves within two possessions.
That's where the events regressed to the mean, the final minutes a spell of deja-vu for the Knights as they failed to pull out on the right side, falling 68-64 to Michigan.
The result is a second road win in eight attempts for the Wolverines (18-10, 8-7) and a fourth loss in six games decided by six points or less in Big Ten play for Rutgers.
“It’s a process,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “We gotta keep fighting. Nothing is easy, nothing is going to be easy or given to us in this league. Our players know that … we gotta complete the deal, we gotta make that big stop, we gotta get a good whistle, maybe that would help us too down the stretch. And we also need to make some plays on the offensive end.”
Holding the ball and a three point deficit with 14 seconds to go, the Knights (13-16, 2-14) got the look they hoped for, finding an open shooter on the perimeter.
It was sophomore guard Corey Sanders, who led Rutgers with 15 points on the night, who was given the chance to push the game to overtime. He, like his teammates, was shooting uncharacteristically well from beyond the arc, having hit two of his first three treys. But the fourth attempt would come up well short, missing everything but the bottom of the net, allowing Michigan guard Zak Irvin to collect the rebound and ice the game from the free throw line.
It would’ve completed a second comeback for the Knights after the earlier 20-6 run gave them their biggest lead of the game, 56-52, with 6:46 to go. After calling a timeout, Michigan retaliated with a 10-0 run of its own to take a 6-point lead with 3:48 remaining, one Rutgers would chip away at but never fully dismantle.
“(Rutgers should) not get rattled with what just happened in the game," Irvin said in the huddle. "(Rutgers has) a lot of talent, so throughout the game we expected a run … (Michigan head coach John Beilein) did a great job of making sure everyone was on the same page. We came out and executed some plays down the stretch.”
But while most focus on the final four minutes, Pikiell is looking at what went wrong in the other 36, more specifically the first four.
The Wolverines came out of the gate on fire from the floor, hitting nine of their first 14 shots, knocking down four of six from beyond the arc in the process. That pushed their lead to 9 points midway through the first half.
“We don’t have a huge margin for error," Pikiell said. "To me, we came out, we weren’t ready to play, had to use a quick timeout (because we) gave up some threes. Those are plays we’ve gone over and our guys have to really understand every point in the game is critical to a team that’s not a great scoring team. Those plays are just as important.”
Unlike close losses before it, this one was not lost on the free throw line, as the Knights aforementioned the 77 percent mark was their best in a Big Ten game this season.
They could scratch turnovers off as the culprit as well, as they surrendered possession a season-low seven times on the night.
“Those are two areas that we stress," said junior guard Nigel Johnson, who contributed 12 points off the bench. "We didn’t have any pick-six (turnovers) today. So if we could keep doing that, make our free throws and not turn the ball over, that’s more shots for us. That’s definitely going to keep us in the games, it’s just, we gotta come down and start executing eventually in the last few minutes.”
With two games remaining in the regular season and at least one contest in the Big Ten Tournament, Rutgers is guaranteed to finish last in the Big Ten for the third straight season and hold the 14th seed in the conference tournament.
For Pikiell, who received a backing for the Big Ten Coach of the Year award from Rutgers Athletic Director Pat Hobbs in a halftime interview for the Big Ten Network, the final stretch is the completion of the first step of a long process.
For junior guard Mike Williams, who endured the worst two seasons this program has ever seen, has just one more year left but sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s a process. We just gotta keep playing basketball like we’ve been playing,” he said. “Dark times don’t last forever … I feel (a breakthrough) coming.”