Rutgers hustles its way past Ohio State for first ever Big Ten Tournament win
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It took everything they had, every last ounce of energy squeezed out of a team who, for the most part, left it all out on the court all season.
Coming off a dramatic win over Illinois to close the regular season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team had some added momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament, but the odds of it earning its first ever win in the competition remained slim.
The 14th seeded Scarlet Knights, coming off another last place finish in the regular season standings, was a heavy underdog to 11th seed Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, who defeated Rutgers earlier in the season in Columbus, had more talent, more experience and a coach who had won the tournament more times than anyone not named Tom Izzo.
And for the first five minutes, the game seemed destined to finish the way the Knights' first two Big Ten Tournament appearances had — with a double-digit loss and a first round exit.
But Rutgers, whose biggest strength is the energy it plays with, recovered from the flatness of its start, using the one thing its opponents lacked against them to make history.
The Knights dove for loose balls and crashed the boards with an urgency of the team it was, one fighting for its season. And while there is no statistic that measures effort, they dominated the Buckeyes in every single one that came close.
Rutgers defeated Ohio State handily in second-chance points (22-6), on the rebounding margin (47-31) and, most surprisingly, from the free throw line.
After losing so many games from the charity stripe all year, the Knights hit 8 of its last 10 free throws to ice a 66-57 win over the Buckeyes, their first ever Big Ten Tournament victory on their third attempt and the first ever by a 14th seed.
With 20 seconds remaining and Ohio State having given up on its season, junior guard Mike Williams held the ball a foot past midcourt and jumped, using up every last bit of juice he had left to celebrate the best moment of his career on the Banks.
“It feels like a boulder is off my shoulders,” Williams, the only Knight who played significant minutes in all three of those games, said. “I was just praying that we would win at least one game in my time here. It’s been a rough couple of years, but like I constantly said, over and over again, (head coach Steve) Pikiell came in, it’s a new era … I’m just proud of the guys. I have no words, I’m just very proud of the guys.”
Coming up to Williams before the final buzzer was Nigel Johnson, a transfer who watched a 89-72 loss to Nebraska in the same competition end an ugly 7-25 campaign a year ago from the bench at Bankers Life Fieldhouse who turned into a hero in Washington.
The junior guard, playing half an hour away from his hometown of Ashburn, Virginia and with plenty of supporters in the stands, was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line on the day, scoring six free throws in the final two minutes to seal the win and his game-high total of 21 points.
It was the final act of a performance that will go down in program history as one of the greats.
Every time Ohio State looked to pull away, Johnson would make his presence felt.
After freshman forward Issa Thiam hit a three pointer to reduce that early 10-point deficit, Johnson doubled down with his own trey on the very next possession. Minutes later, he’d give Rutgers its first lead of the night with a jumper that completed a 13-3 run.
Johnson would score 7 of his team’s last 9 points in the first half and, before sealing the win with a gutsy finish from the foul line, hit a crucial three with a little over two minutes to go to kill the momentum Ohio State was building with a 5-2 run.
“Everybody is 0-0 (in the postseason),” Johnson said when asked of a sign in the locker room that read “New Season.” “As we see every year in college basketball in March, anybody can be beat. We always say, ‘Why not us?’”
The Knights will be asking themselves the same question Thursday as well, when they take their historic feat to a battle with Northwestern, a team a week away from breaking a drought more than 25 times as long as the one Rutgers ended Wednesday.
That same drought could’ve been extended had the Knights closed out their meeting in Evanston a month ago the way they closed out on Wednesday night in Washington, D.C.
Rutgers ultimately fell like they did in Columbus, but it showed it can compete with Northwestern.
“Our guys will fight,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Again, I like (Northwestern's) team a lot. They’re playing with great chemistry. I watched them a lot. They’re on a little bit of a mission. We’re trying to be on a mission ourselves. Expect it to be a great (game) tomorrow."
Sophomore guard Corey Sanders, who either scored or assisted all but 1 of the 4 baskets of a 10-1 run that started the second half for the Knights, said that the win over the Buckeyes was a “payback game” from that earlier loss.
Thursday night’s game with the Wildcats, he said, will also be a revenge game, a mission to further show the development the team has undergone with Pikiell. It was that development that led to Rutgers making history in the nation's capital.
“We probably did,” Sanders said when asked if it felt the Knights played with more effort than its opponent. “(Ohio State) probably came in thinking ‘oh, we’re playing Rutgers, this is going to be easy game for us.’ We’re not that type of team. I think that’s shown throughout the league play, that we’re not the type of team that’s going to fall over, so we played hard and we handled business.”