Rutgers bullied on boards, inside in loss to No. 16 Purdue
The key to the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s contest against No. 16 Purdue Tuesday night was located precisely where it has thrived in for most of the season — inside the paint.
But more importantly than scoring in the paint, where they produce a Division I high 62.4 percent of their points, the Scarlet Knights needed to keep the Boilermakers’ towering tandem of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas off the glass on both ends of the floor.
And though the Knights are no pushovers on the boards, ranking among the best in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, they were no match for the top defensive rebounding team in the Big Ten.
If Minnesota dominated the Knights inside on Saturday when it outrebounded them by a season-high 6 and outscored them in the paint by 8, Purdue manhandled its visitors.
The Boilermakers obliterated Rutgers in the battle of the boards by 17 (45-28) and outscored the Knights by 24 (44-18) inside the painted area, withstanding a blazing first half from deep from Rutgers en route to a comfortable 74-55 win in West Lafayette.
“We’ve just going to have to rebound better against a team like that. It’s by far the biggest team in the league upfront,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell in his postgame spot with Rutgers IMG Radio Network. “We’ve been beaten on the glass last two games and it’s been one of the things we could count on night in and night out and obviously didn’t do that tonight.”
Swanigan, a frontrunner for the Big Ten Player of the Year and a contender for the Naismith National Player of the Year, nearly matched Rutgers’ rebounding output by himself, swallowing up 17 rebounds. He added 12 points to complete his nation-leading 22nd double-double.
But it was his frontcourt partner who stole the show at Mackey Arena. Haas doubled his Swanigan’s scoring output, putting up a game-high 24 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
Sixteen of those points came in the midst of a commanding second half, all of which coming in a 29-9 run that put the game away for good.
“I thought we did a good job on Swanigan,” Pikiell told Rutgers IMG Network’s Jerry Recco. “He was the best player in the league, but obviously, nice luxury to have a guy like (Haas) off the bench, I guess. He’s 7-foot-2, he’s all that ... we have a couple of big guys too, but he made those guys all look small today.”
Until that run, Rutgers had kept within an arms length, closing a 13-point deficit midway through the first period to 7 heading into halftime.
Much of that can be credited to an uncharacteristically strong night from beyond the arc. After missing 5 of their first 6 attempts from deep, the Knights nailed five in a row from downtown to complete a 6-for-11 first half.
Two-thirds of the six 3-pointers — the most they’ve hit in a single half this season — came courtesy of a blazing start from junior guard Nigel Johnson in what was easily his best performance since returning from a lower-body injury and arguably the best of his career.
The junior guard scored 14 of his career-high 23 points in the first half, using a perfect 4-for-4 clip to almost single-handedly keep Rutgers in the contest.
“Thank God he (started off hot). He was on his own and we needed every one of those (shots),” Pikiell said of Johnson. “Unfortunately, we needed a couple more guys to kind of step up and play along with him and we didn’t get that. But it’s good to have him back and hopefully we could keep him in that vein.”
The loss marks the first time the Knights have held a losing record under Pikiell, who is in his first season on the Banks.
Rutgers’ first chance to return to .500 comes Saturday in Evanston against Northwestern. The matchup will be the final away game of the season for the Knights, who return home for a three-game homestand to conclude the season.