Rutgers knocks out No. 15 Seton Hall in final minutes of Garden State Hardwood Classic
The Rutgers men's basketball team will likely not play a better 2 minutes of basketball all season, and it could not have come at a more important time.
There may not be a better senior moment for guard Mike Williams, who finally put the game out of reach with a free throw with 7.7 seconds remaining, as the Scarlet Knights (10-3, 0-2) defeated No. 15 Seton Hall (9-2) in a 71-65 thriller at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), winning the 2017 Garden State Hardwood Classic.
"I don't even have the words to describe this feeling. ... The last three years, it has eluded me," Williams said, referring to the Knights' three previous losses to Seton Hall over the last three years. "For me to get it in front of my fans, this is the best feeling in the world. I'm just thankful for this moment."
If there was any question as to who Rutgers' rival is coming into Saturday, the final few minutes all but confirmed it is the Pirates.
It was the ultimate test of resilience, with the Knights and Seton Hall trading runs and leads before junior guard Corey Sanders put Rutgers out in front for the first time all game with consecutive mid-range jumpers.
None of those runs were as valuable for the Knights than their 17-2 stretch to close out the game, getting themselves to the line and putting the visitors in foul trouble.
After nabbing the 1,000-point milestone last time out against Fordham, Sanders returned to form with one of his best games in a Rutgers uniform, with 22 points on 9-of-16 from the field.
"We just came out and did what we wanted to do, which was win," Sanders said. "We executed our gameplan, which is the reason we got that win. It just feels good."
Despite the rest of the offense needing time find its shot (besides fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman), Sanders led all scorers at the half at an efficient rate and continued that play in the second half.
He wasn't any less busy on defense, with him and freshman guard Geo Baker being matched up with the Seton Hall combo of Myles Powell and Desi Rodriguez, who combined for 33 points on 12-of-23 shooting Saturday.
The two were electric from 3-point range against the Knights, going 6-of-13 from downtown, singlehandedly forcing Rutgers to switch to a 2-3 zone.
Beyond the Pirates' backcourt, the Knights had trouble stopping Seton Hall's starting five in general. Four of the five crept into double-digits in scoring, with the lone single-digit scorer more than making up for it in rebounding, as Angel Delgado notched 21 rebounds.
Seton Hall as a whole got out in front of Rutgers on the backs of the 3-ball and second chance opportunities. As has been the case all season, the Pirates shot the ball well from beyond the arc at the beginning of the game. They relied less on the 3-ball later on in the game because of the Knights' adjustments, but Seton Hall still found other ways to chip away at Rutgers' defense.
That came through attacking the boards, the Knights' number one strength this year coming into the game Saturday.
Rutgers entered the contest with a seven-rebound per game advantage over the Pirates, but the visitors squashed whatever edge the home side had early on. It was a trend that tapered off as the game went on though, as the Knights exerted more control on the boards later on, especially on the offensive end, edging out Seton Hall, 19-13.
"I thought we had tremendous poise down the stretch," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "Corey and Mike with some rebounds, and D(eshawn). We grabbed every big rebound down the stretch. I thought our defense was really good."
Despite getting back into the rebounding game, Rutgers was unable to translate that into success in transition. The Knights continuously struggled on breakaway opportunities, even with numbers in their favor, only converting 4 points on the fast break.
But there was some good out of having so many opportunities in transition. Rutgers forced a lot of turnovers out of the visiting Pirates, getting to the line frequently off of Seton Hall's transition fouls.
Of course, getting to the line — as it has been all season — didn't work out the way the team wanted, with the Knights shooting 62.5 percent from the charity stripe.
To Rutgers' fortune, the visitors were even worse from the free-throw line, especially down the stretch, shooting 54.5 percent on the day.
Even just drawing fouls and heading to the line stirred up momentum for the Knights in front of a sold-out RAC. Efficiency in all facets of the offense — from mid-range, in the paint and off the ball — allowed Rutgers to pull ahead and raise the state-shaped trophy after.
It was a fitting end to a chippy rivalry game that should in theory decide who the best team in New Jersey is. Saturday's game will most likely not move the needle too much in either direction, with it being a second half of runs and both sides having their own flashes of brilliance.
On Saturday, it was the Knights who had that final flash of brilliance, enough to give Rutgers what may be a program-changing win.
"It's a credit to these guys," Pikiell said, on his team. "They have made this a game. These are the guys that believed in us a year ago and stayed the course."
For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.