April 22, 2019 | 56° F

Complete team effort led by top talents propels Rutgers to Senior Day win over Illinois

Photo by Jeffrey Gomez |

Head coach Steve Pikiell saw his team pull out a win in a tight finish in Big Ten play for just the third time this season Saturday. The Scarlet Knights defeated Illinois 62-59 on Senior Day behind a game-winning three-pointer with seven seconds remaining from junior forward Deshawn Freeman.

The Rutgers men’s basketball team concluded its season doing something it came close to achieving multiple times but ultimately fell short in its first year under head coach Steve Pikiell — it won a close game with clutch plays down the stretch.

The Scarlet Knights (14-17, 3-15) defeated Illinois (18-13, 8-10) 63-59 Saturday at the Rutgers Athletic Center, closing its regular season off strong and sending senior center C.J. Gettys off in style.

Here’s how they did it:

Rutgers didn’t fold when Illinois started to pull away:

The Knights picked up the slack on both ends of the floor after the Fighting Illini erupted to begin the second half with a 17-4 run to take its biggest lead of the day at 10 with 15 minutes to play.

They recovered from the barrage and got back to playing the excellent half-court defense that helped them control the first half and take a 30-27 lead into the break. After hitting 7 of its first 12 shots to start the second frame, Illinois went an abysmal 4-for-20 to close the game, missing its last seven attempts.

“We all had tough defensive assignments,” Pikiell said. “(Malcolm) Hill was playing great, (junior guard) Mike got him, (sophomore guard) Corey (Sanders) got him, (junior forward Deshawn Freeman) got him on some switch offs, (junior forward) Candido (Sa) got him, so everybody had to be locked into the scouting report today.”

The defensive effort was a collective one, a theme in this contest we’ll get to soon. But before we get to that, we’ll discuss the main reason Rutgers pulled this one out, which is...

The Knights' best players came up big when it mattered:

Freeman and Sanders, arguably the two most talented players on Rutgers’ roster, won this game for the Knights. The duo scored all but 8 of their team's 32 second half points, combining for the last 20 points in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Before Sanders found Freeman on the perimeter to set up his improbable game-winning three pointer, the sophomore guard scored 10 straight points. The one-man run kept the Illini from using a late-run to take the game, something the Knights have seen happen to them on a number of occasions this season.

But while Freeman’s second half performance was a continuation of his game-high 10 point first half, it was a 180 degree flip for Sanders. Rutgers leading scorer missed all but one of his first 10 attempts of the day, entering halftime having mustered just 4 points. Rather than responding like he did four days earlier when the Knights hosted Maryland, though, Sanders kept up his aggressiveness despite the slow start and it paid off.

“I want to start by saying with the last four possessions, Corey (Sanders) got to the rim on a bunch of plays,” Pikiell said. “I felt like we executed really well after the timeout. After three or four attempts, I knew they were going to jump him and double team him, so we had a couple different outlets … Corey never got to the baseline so he threw it back to (Deshawn Freeman), and I am proud of him. I say it to him every day while we shoot before practice, if you are open (take the shot). He took the shot and it was great.”

But before Freeman and Sanders ran the show by scoring 24 of their combined 38 points in the second half, they needed some help. Which brings us to the fact that…

Everyone on the roster contributed:

All 12 players on Pikiell’s bench saw time on the court Saturday and each contributed something meaningful to the effort. Walk-on guard Jake Dadika was entrusted with playing meaningful minutes in the second half, coming on for Corey Sanders out of the second timeout of the period when the Knights trailed by 10 with a little under 15 minutes to go.

Dadika, who played a total of 44 minutes all season entering the contest, sparked the 13-3 run Rutgers used to tie the game up at 47. It was him that found Williams open on the perimeter not once but twice, dishing a pair of dimes to his teammate that Williams would convert with a pair of treys. Dadika doubled down on the defensive end, holding his own and forcing a bad shot from Kipper Nichols.

He would check out after three minutes of action, but it would be long enough to give Sanders the rest he needed to prepare for the final stretch.

“He was great,” Pikiell said of Dadika. “I thought Corey looked very tired, I wanted some great energy. I wanted to reverse the ball, I was tired of it not moving from side to side and I trust Jake. Does a great job every day in practice and I’m just really happy. Got right in and did exactly what he was supposed to do. He was ready to play, so happy for him. And that gave Corey a bit of a blow for down the stretch where he had to do some big things.”

He played for only three minutes, but the two assists were key to reversing the tide. The two treys got the attention of the opposing coach.

"I just told Mike Williams on my way in that I thought that his two threes were huge," said Illinois head coach John Groce. "... I thought his tenacity as well on some loose balls, you could feel him as I was coaching the game. I really respect how hard he plays, even before the game, but even more so now. I thought he really made a difference."

What Dadika and Williams did in the second half was matched by Gettys’ contributions in the first half. 

The graduate transfer playing in his final game at the Rutgers Athletic Center scored all 8 of his points in the first half, using the momentum of getting honored pregame as part of Senior Day festivities to propel Rutgers to a strong start.

And while he contributed wasn’t able to repeat it in the second frame, he was on the court when the other half of Ghost Gang hit the game-winner. When practically everyone at the RAC was in a state of shock as Freeman elevated to take the final shot, Gettys couldn’t be happier.

“I wanted him shoot,” he said. “I didn’t want (Freeman) to shot fake 10 times like he normally does and then drive, put it behind his back and then euro-step. I wanted him to shoot the ball and I was down there, had Morgan boxed out pretty well and if the ball came off the rim, I was getting it. But I have confidence in these guys and they have confidence in me and they made a great play and won the game.”

The Knights did win the game, which was…

A Great Way to End Pikiell’s first and Gettys last year on the Banks:

As much as Gettys would like to return for another season (or two) at Rutgers, the reality is his career in Piscataway is over the next time the Knights lose. Popular among the fanbase for his gritty play and fiery celebrations, Gettys is just as, if not more revered among his teammates, who all admitted to wanting to win this game for their eldest teammate.

“I told (Gettys) I was going to try everything in my power to get him this win because it was Senior Day,” Williams said. “After the game, in the locker room, he came in and hugged me and was like ‘thank you Mike, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me this past year.’ That means a lot … For me to learn from somebody like that, I’m really going to miss him but i’m going to take everything he taught me and use it next year.”

Williams noted that Gettys has “a winning attitude” from his time at UNC-Wilmington, something the Knights are trying to develop themselves. 

It appeared Rutgers was slowly building it as the season went on, with some hiccups at home to Iowa and Maryland and on the road against Michigan State and Indiana the exceptions to the rule of the Knights playing their conference opponents tight. 

But as much as it came close to pulling off a number of upsets, the reality is Rutgers had just two Big Ten wins and many late collapses to show for it. 

Pulling out a tight win against a red-hot team on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament bubble was crucial in showing the Knights and the rest of the league that they are capable of coming out on the right end.

“Our margin for winning and losing for all the games we’ve won has been down to the wire. … I think (the Big Ten is) the best league in the country from 1 to 14, I don’t care what everyone else is talking about all these other leagues. Everyone’s fighting for a postseason bid, so it’s a great league.”

It’s a league with a daunting gauntlet Pikiell will be guiding the Knights through for the foreseeable future, so building momentum for the future in the form of a season-ending win is great achievement. 

It put the cherry on top of an inaugural campaign that saw the Knights improve on just about every aspect from a year ago, building a foundation and pointing the program in a positive direction under the leadership of Pikiell, assistant coaches Brandin Knight, Karl Hobbs and Jay Young and Director of Athletics Pat Hobbs.

“It’s the toughest league in the country and these teams just keep coming at you,” Pikiell said. “All these guys chipped in, and we had great communication on the defensive end. I thought we made big plays down the stretch, defensively too. I am so proud of how far we have come. We have come a long way. We are not the most talented team in the league, so we have come a long way in chemistry, team defense, rebounding.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Brian Fonseca

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