Rutgers falls to Minnesota in battle of Big Ten's most improved teams
A little under a year after hosting Minnesota in a battle between the Big Ten’s two worst teams last season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team welcomed the Golden Gophers back to the Rutgers Athletic Center for the first time since that meeting Saturday.
The Scarlet Knights emerged victorious that day, blowing out a depleted Minnesota team with just seven scholarship players.
“I remember walking in here thinking ‘ugh, this brings back bad memories,’” said Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino of coming back to the RAC.
Both teams are vastly improved since then, but as much as Rutgers has grown under head coach Steve Pikiell since defeating Minnesota that day, the Gophers have shown perhaps, even more, progress.
If it wasn’t obvious when looking at the league standings, where Minnesota sits in the middle of the pack at seventh while the Knights remained buried in last place, it was evident on the court.
The visiting Gophers dominated their hosts from start to finish, leading for all but 18 seconds of the contest. And while the lead never grew to more than 12, it didn’t seem like Minnesota’s 70-63 win over Rutgers was ever in doubt, even when the Knights came within five inside the final two minutes.
It was the persistent issues of the season — struggles from the free throw line (10-for-22) and in making defensive stops down the stretch — that once again doomed them.
“Mental or not mental, we gotta step up and make our free throws. That’s the bottom line,” said senior center C.J. Gettys. “We left so many points from the free throw line, it’s ridiculous. The game would be completely different if we made three or four three throws down the stretch. We just need to work on free throws.”
Those constants were joined by an anomaly.
Minnesota (18-7, 6-6) used its height — it ranks 16th nationally in average height, according to KenPom — to bully Rutgers (13-13, 2-11) on the boards and in the paint all afternoon.
The Gophers outrebounded the Knights by six, the largest loss on the glass they’ve seen throughout Big Ten play, which played a factor in their 44 points in the paint.
It seemed like every time Rutgers managed to force Minnesota into missing a shot, the Gophers would grab the rebound and put it back with ease. It killed any momentum the Knights tried to build, putting the 6,008 fans, who stood up and made noise in another fantastic showing, back in their seats.
“We (will) get the stop but we gotta finish it with a rebound,” said sophomore guard Corey Sanders. “They were killing us on the glass, so you know, it’s kind of frustrating and kind of wearing on you when you get a stop and they get the offensive rebound and you gotta play another 30 seconds on defense so that’s kind of tough.”
It was the main reason why Rutgers entered halftime down by nine despite shooting at an abnormally high 50 percent clip in the opening 20 minutes.
Jordan Murphy was the catalyst for the visitors. A 15-point performance in the first half was enough to propel him to being the game’s leading scorer despite a poor second half in which he scored just two points before fouling out.
He put an exclamation point on his performance with an emphatic dunk over Gettys, putting the center on a poster.
“Jordan Murphy set the tone in the first half,” Pitino said. “I think he set the tone from a rebounding standpoint.”
Murphy was on the bench for the final two minutes due to fouling out, but Rutgers couldn’t take advantage.
Down five after Gettys’ tipped in a miss from freshman Eugene Omoruyi, the hosts had the ball and a chance to pack the pressure on the Gophers. The look was good as Sanders gave an open Nigel Johnson on the perimeter, but the junior guard’s three-pointer rimmed out.
It marked the beginning of the end for the Knights, who fall to .500 for the first time under Pikiell.
With a trip to No. 16 Purdue coming up on Valentine’s Day, Rutgers may very well hold a losing record for the first time this season. It’s another step in the humbling process that the Big Ten schedule has served, a gauntlet Pikiell has always acknowledged as a tough challenge.
While he harps on his belief that his team is constantly improving, he’s not shy in saying they need to improve — everywhere from the foul line to the perimeter.
“Everybody wants to be at the top of the mountain, but the journey there is tough,” Pikiell said. “I like this team. We’re scrappy, we’re tough. We’re not the most talented team in the world but we do the little things, usually. We just gotta get them to do a little more of the big things.”
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