March 20, 2019 | 29° F

Game-winning putback lifts Rutgers over St. John's in charity exhibition game, 80-78

It's hard to believe the Rutgers men's basketball team could want anything more out of an exhibition game.

The Scarlet Knights collected an 80-78 victory over St. John's in a triumphant affair, overcoming an 11-point lead to win via a putback from sophomore forward Issa Thiam.

"We got a look up, and then we had two guys in great positions to rebound," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "And Issa snuck in there."

But before Thiam scored the game-winning tip-in, Sunday's contest could have been told completely by just three plays.

Midway through the second half, junior guard Corey Sanders plays iso-ball and sinks a straightaway three, giving Rutgers its first lead since 7:55 in the first half.

Responding to a layup on the other end to tie things up, freshman guard Geo Baker finds Sanders all alone in the paint and lofts it in for the Sanders lay-in.

Seconds later, Baker steals the ball and throws it up to senior forward Deshawn Freeman, who breaks away for the dunk to make it a two-possession game.

"During the offseason, we played against each other a lot, so playing against someone new, it's giving us good energy, and that's what we're feeding off of," Freeman said.

That energy fueled a series that Rutgers hopes encapsulates its season, showcasing the playmaking prowess of three of its most important players going forward.

All three — Sanders, Baker and Freeman — contributed to Rutgers's strong shooting second half, as the team combined for 68 percent from the field.

It was a welcome change from a first half in which the Knights rarely saw production out of Freeman and senior guard Mike Williams. Williams finished the game with 18 points, nabbing two from three, but he came away with a knee injury early on in the second half and didn't see the court the rest of the way.

Freeman emerged from the game a standout in multiple areas of the game, collecting a double-double and leading the team in both points and rebounds, with 28 and 12 respectively.

"I thought he was terrific," Pikiell said. "Double-double and made his free throws. Had a great focus in the game, and had tough matchups too. Guarded a lot of guys that played perimeter, a little bit different for him. Thought that from start to finish he was ready to go."

The captain excelled in a matchup of contrasting styles, as Rutgers worked most of its plays into the paint while St. John's favored the space beyond the arc, taking 23 shots from three compared to the Knights's 15.

Starting inside alongside Freeman was freshman center Mamadou Doucoure, as Rutgers fans got their first taste of him and Baker on the Banks.

Baker got off to a slow start Sunday, but as the game progressed, he moved the ball well and facilitated the offense next to Sanders in the backcourt. His exploits were best on display when he dished a no-look pass to Doucoure in the first half, leading to a foul and two made free throws for the Mali native.

What could have been an alarming wake-up call for the Knights proved to be a valuable matchup before they return to the Rutgers Athletic Center for their first regular season game of the season against Central Connecticut State on Friday.

Scrimmages and practices in the preseason can only do so much in preparation for the regular season, and Sunday's tune-up against a strong Red Storm squad could instill enough confidence in Rutgers to eke out a couple more wins as the season wears on.

And aside from the obvious benefits this game gives both teams, its actual impact stretches much further, as the net proceeds from the event will be donated to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief fund. 

Rutgers played the game it will play many more times over the season, and judging by history, that last-second putback won't always be in its favor.

But the hustle and energy coming out of a Knights side even before the regular season starts is enough to set the team on the right track, Pikiell says. Overcoming a major deficit late in the second half is a lot more educational than blowing out the opponent.

"A lot of guys have to play through a lot of obstacles," Pikiell said. "Down 11 and playing a really good offensive time, so a lot of obstacles we (had to) overcome, and that's a good sign."

Jon Spilletti

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