Rutgers drops 1st game of season to Florida State, 78-73, in Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Sophomore Omoruyi leads Knights with 22 points off bench
In a season that has been characterized by "tale of two halves" games, the Rutgers men's basketball team finally had the better half twice, and it still wasn't enough.
It was sloppy and ugly in some respects, but the Scarlet Knights played their two best halves of the season so far when it mattered most.
Still, Rutgers (6-1) dropped its first match of the season to a visiting Florida State (6-0), 78-73, Tuesday night as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. With the loss, the Knights move to 2-2 all-time in the annual showcase.
"We noticed that coming into the game," said sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, on the better competition in Florida State. "So we played our hardest, that's how we came to play today."
That showed from the very first few minutes, as Rutgers got off to an uncharacteristically fast start, keeping up with the Seminoles for the entirety of the first half. Most of the Knights' game in its first six matchups has been about starting slow and picking back up in the second half, but the quality of opponent must have brought a certain sense of urgency.
Still, with the fast pace of the first half came unusually sloppy play by way of turnovers, missed rebounds and rushed fast breaks. A few potential rebounds simply popped out of Rutgers hands and ended up either out of bounds or into Seminole hands. And on fast breaks, the Knights could hardly contain itself, failing to convert on two-on-one fast breaks because of misplaced passes or missed lay-ins.
Foul trouble also got to Rutgers early on, as it did Florida State. It was a tightly-called game, especially in the first half, where each team had 10 fouls.
But where straying from its usual play helped the Knights was in the free-throw game. Shooting 58 percent going into Tuesday's game, Rutgers hit free throws at an 80 percent clip, going 16-20 on the night.
Especially in a game where both sides were in the bonus for the majority of the second half, free throws were the decider. Florida State may have only shot 63 from the line, but the visitors were able to file them in when it counted.
Leading the charge from the charity stripe and on the court in general was the captain himself: senior forward Deshawn Freeman. The North Carolina native once again put in a strong night on the boards and from the field, collecting 15 points and leading both sides in rebounds with 16. With this, Freeman collected his 12th career double-double.
Freeman was joined by sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, who provided valuable minutes from the bench in the second half. Omoruyi led the Knights in points with 22, shooting 9-11 from the field, keeping Rutgers close with a few key lay-ins down the stretch.
"He took advantage of us," said Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton. "He made play after play. We didn't have very much of an answer. ... Having a guy like that that can come in off the bench and give you some points in a game like that awfully says a lot about him."
But even with strong individual performances from Freeman, Omoruyi and the like, the Knights were ultimately downed by two Seminoles in Phil Cofer and CJ Walker. The duo combined for 35 points and made up all six of Florida State's 3-pointers on a 75 percent clip.
It was Walker's and-one in the final minute that put the game out of reach for Rutgers, and the 6-foot-1-inch point guard increased his value from the free-throw line, shooting 10 of 11.
Cofer and Walker typified the exact level of competition the Knights are likely to run into time and time again once the Big Ten slate rolls around. After six games of lower-tier teams in which Rutgers came away with six wins — many of them unconvincing — Tuesday's fixture all but proved the Knights could hang with "NCAA Tournament" caliber teams, as head coach Steve Pikiell described the Seminoles.
Hamilton noted that Rutgers came prepared for Florida State, and that's as good a compliment as any in showing the strides the Knights have made on and off the court.
"We play hard," Pikiell said. "And we're gonna be ready for the Big Ten schedule. ... We'll continue to get better, we're still finding ourselves."
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