Free throws, late lapses cost Rutgers upset bid at Northwestern
The last time the Rutgers men’s basketball team faced Northwestern, a forgettable shooting performance was the Scarlet Knights’ downfall as they fell 69-60 to the Wildcats at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
When the teams met for the second time at the Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston Saturday, a second consecutive shooting burst in the first half kept Rutgers in the game.
A 50 percent clip from the floor in the opening 20 minutes, including a 40 percent clip from three similar to the 6-for-11 performance it had in the first half against No. 16 Purdue midweek, had the Knights within one at the half.
Accustomed to allowing opponents to blow open close games after the intermission, it was Rutgers that took control out of the break. The Knights used a 14-7 run in the first 10 minutes of the second half to take a 6-point lead and held it for the next seven minutes.
But the Wildcats, who would see their bid in making a historic debut in the NCAA Tournament take a huge dent with a loss, didn’t let Rutgers expand that lead beyond two possessions. They hit six free throws in a row when the Knights’ defense remained compact, keeping themselves within striking distance.
In the final three minutes, Northwestern found its stroke, using two consecutive threes to reverse a 4 point deficit into a 2 point lead with a minute to go. After years of late collapses and heartbreak, the Wildcats would hold on against the Knights, closing out the game on a 10-2 run in the final two minutes of a 69-65 victory.
As Doug Collins, the former National Basketball Association player, coach and analyst and father of Northwestern head coach Chris Collins, was caught by ESPN cameras embodying the feelings of most of the 8,817 in attendance at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell spoke of similar feelings for his team to the Rutgers IMG Radio Network.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Pikiell told IMG’s Jerry Recco in his postgame radio interview. “They had to have this win, Northwestern.”
The Knights (13-15, 2-13) shot above their average in both three-point and overall field goal percentage, but fell short in the same category that’s killed them all season — free throws.
Averaging the fourth worst free throw percentage in the country (61.4 percent) heading into the game, Rutgers went a putrid 6-for-12 (50 percent) from the charity stripe.
The most crucial miss came in the final minute, when junior guard Mike Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one and a chance to push a then-4 point lead to six. After grabbing the rebound, the Wildcats hit a three-pointer on the other end, kickstarting the final run that put the nail in the coffin Rutgers was preparing to put its hosts in.
“We missed some timely free throws, hurt us again,” Pikiell told Recco. “(We) played our hearts out in a tough environment and we’ve come a long way, just need to make a couple of plays down the stretch and again, some free throws and that kind of thing, we need to play perfect basketball.”
It wasted a big advantage on the boards (39-31 overall, 18-9 on offensive glass), another solid defensive effort (Northwestern went six minutes without a free throw before the final 10-2 run) and the best combined performance from its guards in Big Ten play.
The pair of sophomore guard Corey Sanders and junior guard Nigel Johnson combined for 33 points, with Williams contributing eight rebounds.
Johnson built off a career-high 23 point performance against the Boilermakers with another impressive night from beyond the arc, going 3-for-6 from downtown.
The most notable of the trio came with the shot clock winding down and four minutes to go as Johnson let it fly from 40 feet, his feet nearly landing on the big, purple N at halfcourt as the ball hit nothing but nylon on its way down. It gave Rutgers a 4-point lead, one it would hold until a quick 6-0 run from Northwestern gave the home side a 2-point advantage with as many minutes remaining.
A minute later, with the Wildcats (20-7, 9-5) still up two, Johnson shot his final three pointer, one in which where he took contact from an opponent on the way down as his shot went wide. Northwestern picked up the rebound and there was no foul called on the play.
“Oh, tough call. Tough play, tough play,” Pikiell told Recco of the sequence. “That’s what happens when you’re on the road. I thought very difficult to not call that a foul. I’ll have to look at it on the tape, but that was a tough one.”
The Wildcats hung on from there, sealing their 20th win to tie the program’s single-season win record and, according to most bracketologists, take a big, penultimate step toward finally reaching the Big Dance.
Upon taking the job he has now in March, Pikielll said partaking in March Madness, something Rutgers hasn’t done since 1991, was a goal of his.
In the postgame handshake line, the man who is close to breaking the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any power five program spoke to Pikiell far longer than anyone has since he arrived in Piscataway. Collins was also caught speaking to Johnson and Sanders for an extended period by television cameras.
What he said exactly may never be known, but amid the jubilation of his program’s biggest ever wins, Collins likely reminded Pikiell that before reaching the peak, he was in a similar hole.
“We all knew as a team who Rutgers was. A lot of people look at their record and think they’re just a team that’s going to come and lay down and not play, but if you look at this team, they’ve been playing everyone tough all year,” Collins said. “They actually remind me a lot of where we’ve been the last couple of years, just fighting and scrapping and playing hard, maybe not getting results with the wins but on the right track. I love what Steve’s doing at Rutgers. I love how hard they play and they caused us a lot of problems today.”