Role players picking up slack pushes Rutgers past Big Ten Tournament barrier
WASHINGTON, D.C. — There were two minutes remaining in Rutgers men’s basketball team’s Big Ten Tournament first round matchup with Ohio State when it happened, when it seemed someone hit replay on the movie the Scarlet Knights had seen unfold before them so many times this season.
Captain Deshawn Freeman, their second leading scorer on the season and the only Knight to reach double-figures alongside the game’s leading scorer Nigel Johnson, picked up his fifth and final foul.
Rutgers’ lead at the time was five, far from insurmountable with that much time on the clock, so it needed someone to step up on the defensive end to take some pressure off of whoever was tasked with taking the free throw line late to ice the game.
That someone was freshman forward Eugene Omoruyi, who picked up a rebound in the midst of a strong defensive performance down the stretch and played a big part in Rutgers (15-17, 3-15) holding on to a 66-57 win over the Buckeyes (17-15, 7-11), the first Big Ten Tournament win in program history.
“I wish he stopped doing that reach-around foul, that was going through my head,” said junior guard Mike Williams of his co-captain fouling out. “Then I was like, ‘okay, so now we’re down one soldier, now it’s time for someone to step up.’ And Eugene came in the game and stepped up huge.”
Omoruyi wasn’t the only one either.
In a game where leading scorer Corey Sanders had almost as many turnovers (5) as he had points (6), where Williams, the team’s fourth leading scorer, finished with four points and senior center C.J. Gettys missed a pair of open shots by the rim on an uninspired scoring night, the Knights saw some of their role players step into the spotlight.
Take Issa Thiam, for example. The freshman forward came to campus from Senegal with a reputation as a sharpshooter, one he didn’t live up to in his first season on the Banks almost entirely due to the fact that he never gave himself a chance.
“I don’t know. It bothers me too because I want him to shoot the ball when he’s open,” said head coach Steve Pikiell of Thiam's hesitance to shoot following a loss to Maryland a week ago. “He just has a bit of a delay and when he does delay, those shots are taken away from him. He’s gotta get that figured out. There’s only a split second you get in this league against those kind of teams so he’s gotta get rid of it quickly. He’s learning.”
Thiam appeared to learn on the fly as he let it fly from deep against the Buckeyes, beginning an early 13-3 run with a trey to open his tab.
He would finish going 3-for-6 from the field and 2-for-4 from downtown, proving crucial points throughout, including a turnaround hook shot out of the under-eight media timeout in the second half that gave the Knights the lead for good.
“My coaches said I need to shoot,” Thiam said when told he looked more confident Wednesday night. “Get the ball, look at the basket and shoot. I do that in practice and same, too, in the game.”
Freeman would add to the lead with a putback a minute later, providing one of Rutgers’ 19 offensive rebounds on the night. The most important of the bunch came a minute after Freeman’s, when junior forward Candido Sa beat out three Ohio State defenders to the boards before putting it back for an and-one to push the Knight’s lead to five with as many minutes to play.
A 20-minute a night player in the non-conference portion of the season, Sa hadn’t played double-digit time since the last day of January in a blowout loss to Iowa. Still, when his number was called, he went up to the plate and got a big bucket.
“Plays like that change the momentum of the game … I think every shot is a miss so I just did what I had to do,” Sa said. “Coach always tells us to be ready every minute, even if you play 30 seconds or 20 minutes, you always have to be ready … Of course I don’t like to play less, but it’s coaches option so I just have to respect that and every time I have the opportunity, I need to show that I want to be on the court.”
In the mold of Sa, Jonathan Laurent pitched in during the win as well.
Though he’s seen more time on the floor than Sa, the sophomore forward has been held scoreless 4 out of his last 5 appearances.
It didn’t take him long to brush off the dust, though, as he hit two consecutive buckets in the first 2 of his 13 minutes on the night. Laurent added a couple offensive boards as well, including a tip-in midway through a back-and-forth second half.
"I was proud, every guy that stepped into the game helped us," Pikiell said. "That's what we need. We need 12 guys. '16 strong' is one of our sayings. We need everybody from the scout team to do a great job."
There's a saying in Sa's native language of Portuguese that perfectly describes his team's performance against the Buckeyes — onde tudo ajuda, nada custa. Where everyone helps, nothing is hard.
While Sanders didn't score much, what he did contribute reversed Rutgers' trend of slow second half starts as he played a part in 3 of its first 4 baskets out of halftime. In similar fashion, both Gettys and Williams made up for his lack of scoring by picking up nine rebounds.
It certainly wasn't easy, but when everyone pitched in, it made becoming the first 14th seed to win a game in Big Ten Tournament history possible.
"Me being the veteran, I wasn’t able to produce like I wanted to but I’m just proud that the guys was able to step up in my absence," Williams said. "That’s what basketball’s about, man. When one person is out, because of sickness or injury or even foul trouble, someone has to step up and be ready to play. Eugene was there. And not just Eugene, Issa was there, Candido stepped up big with an and-one. Basketball is a funny thing. Anything can happen on any given night. I’m just proud of my guys."