Deshawn Freeman hits game-winning three as Rutgers defeats Illinois on thrilling Senior Day
Corey Sanders took the ball up the court with 30 seconds remaining in the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s regular season finale against Illinois.
The sophomore guard had been on a tear in the second half, making up for a paltry 1-for-10 clip in the first half by driving to the basket and hitting five shots in nine attempts en route to 13 points in the final 20 minutes.
That includes three straight layups to complete a 10-point comeback and another with 59 seconds remaining to tie the game at 59, setting up a chance to repeat his magic from a year ago in the same venue against the same opponent.
Everyone at the Rutgers Athletic Center, all 5,706 of them, thought he’d be the one to take the final shot, so when he dished the ball to junior forward Deshawn Freeman on the perimeter with 10 ticks to go, most were caught off-guard.
This included the Fighting Illini, who left him open from beyond the arc.
So Freeman let it fly as Malcolm Hill closed out on defense, silencing the building before bringing everyone in it to their feet as his 15th career three-point attempt went through the hoop, hitting nothing but net to give Rutgers a 3-point lead with seven seconds remaining.
Freeman hopped up after falling down following his shot and ran back on defense, where he grabbed the rebound of a last-second heave from Illinois to seal the 62-59 victory on Senior Day to send off the other half of Ghost Gang on a high.
"Yeah, I thought it was good," Freeman said when asked if he felt the shot was going in when it left his hands. "I just gotta give credit to God, man, and I gotta give credit to Corey. He made a good pass and I was able to knock it down."
Though the distance of his game-winner was surprising, his late-game heroics were not. Freeman led all scorers with a game-high 21 points on a near flawless 7-for-8 day from the field and a perfect 6-for-6 performance from the free throw line.
One of those shots, a layup with eight minutes to go, was the cherry on top of a 13-3 run from the Knights, one that came shortly after Illinois used a 17-4 run out of the break to take a game-high 10 point lead in the first five minutes of the second half.
Pikiell grew increasingly upset at his team’s effort, or lack thereof, as the Illini packed on the points, prompting him to take not one but two timeouts.
The latter timeout was followed by the insertion of Jake Dadika into the game. The walk-on guard provided a spark, dishing two assists to junior guard Mike Williams, who sank two straight treys to initiate the 13-3 run.
“I have a never-say-die attitude. I’m going to fight no matter what," Williams said. "Like coach Pikiell says, it’s basketball, anything could happen. And luckily, those two big threes were able to spark us. The crowd got into it and we fed off that energy and we were able to pull off the win."
The game became a back-and-forth slugfest, with Sanders answering a Maverick Morgan dunk and layup and a Malcolm Hill three-pointer with three consecutive successful drives to the basket.
The Lakeland, Florida, native scored 10 straight points for Rutgers, teeing up Freeman’s game winner before even making the assist. It was a stark contrast to his last performance, where he went 2-for-10 in a loss to Maryland.
"I just wanted to stay aggressive," Sanders said. "Last game, when I was cold against Maryland, I just stopped attacking ... Today I wasn't going to let it affect me. I was cold but I just wanted to keep attacking and hopefully it was going to fall, which it did today. That was a big boost for us.
It was reminiscent of Sanders' performance the last time the Knights faced the Illini, when he hit a game-tying three as time expired to push the game into triple-overtime, one that was picked as the top play on SportsCenter's 'Top 10 Plays' countdown the next day.
Sanders didn't make it back onto the countdown for a third time, but he was more than happy to see Rutgers win.
"That's crazy," Sanders said of Rutgers' recent history against Illinois. "I walked into the locker room and (to Deshawn Freeman), I was like 'D, it's something about Illinois.'"
It served as the best possible send off for senior center C.J. Gettys, who contributed 8 points, nine rebounds and an assist, most of which came in a first half his team dominated for the most part.
When Pikiell shook the hand of every last fan remaining in the student section minutes after the final buzzer, he was asked to bring Gettys with him for their last chance to say goodbye. The love felt by the fans is palpable, so much so that Pikiell called Gettys a "cult-hero."
"It was great," Gettys said of his regular season send-off. "I want to thank Coach Pikiell for the opportunity to come play for him. If I could do this, make the decision (of where to go for my postgrad year) 100 times, I'd come here 100 out of 100 times. To end on a game like that is crazy. ... I didn't score but I did what I could and these guys finished it off."
Heading to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament this week, the victory gives the Knights momentum as they enter the stage of the season where a loss sends them back home for good.
But even when it eventually happens, Rutgers can look back on its first season with Pikiell and see the progress its had.
The Knights doubled their win total from last season, reached a program-high in Big Ten wins, improved on nearly every statistical category and to top it off, finally ended up on the right side of one of the many, many close games it played.
"What a great win on Senior Day," Pikiell said. "I really feel like we've made tremendous progress and you got to see that today ... To be able to come away with a great win to wrap up the year here at home in a great environment was tremendous.”