Rutgers holds on after slow start for 73-64 home win over NJIT
Very few teams will start out on an 8-0 run against No. 3 Michigan State — only to go down 7 points to start, versus New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) just two days later. But that is exactly what the Rutgers men's basketball team did Thursday night.
Fortunately for the Scarlet Knights (7-3, 0-2), they were up against the Highlanders (5-4) and not the Spartans, and they came away from the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) with a 73-64 victory.
It was another instance of Rutgers falling behind against an inferior opponent, emblematic of many of the team's non-conference games to start the season.
The Knights turned the ball over four times in their first five possessions, failing to score until the 15:24 mark in the first half. It took 6 more minutes for them to take their first lead of the contest.
"I think some of our turnovers were based on us more than them," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "Again they played hard, and they got us to cough it up a few times. Nothing that they did surprised me, it's just we weren't as locked in as we needed to be."
From then on, despite NJIT keeping it close and even retaking the lead at times, Rutgers remained in control, helped by an upperclassmen duo in fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman and junior guard Corey Sanders, who showed up following a rough game against Michigan State.
The tandem combined for 31 points on the night after a weak performance from the field Tuesday against Michigan State, shooting 20 percent versus the Spartans.
Freeman had a field day down low for the Knights, putting up 13 points on a 6-of-8 line, while Sanders found his shot from outside and earned his time attacking the basket, especially in the second half. Sanders shot for 53 percent against the Highlanders and worked the offense with three assists.
"I was always going to be aggressive and try to make plays for my team, whether it's scoring the ball, getting somebody open or on the defensive end too," Sanders said. "I was just trying to be aggressive from the start and just will my team to a win. Get everybody energized and just try to do what I do."
Even so, it took a while for the pair to get going Thursday night, and in the meantime, it was up to the early play of sophomore forwards Eugene Omoruyi and Issa Thiam to make up the difference.
Omoruyi salvaged Rutgers' dismal start with his work inside offensively, bullying his way into the paint on numerous occasions against NJIT standout Anthony Tarke.
For Thiam, it was a string of plays midway through the first half that energized the Knights back into the game. The Dakar, Senegal native converted a 3-pointer on one end, recorded a chase-down block a few plays later and sunk a baseline floater all in just over a minute.
Despite strong offensive performances from many Rutgers players Thursday night, the game was the least bit typical for the Knights.
A team that wins most of its games on the boards, Rutgers was completely dominated by NJIT in offensive rebounds, 23-9, with the disparity showing up in second-chance points as well, with the Highlanders leading, 18-3.
Normally a leading candidate to rack up rebounds in any game — coming into Thursday third in the Big Ten with 9.2 rebounds per game — Freeman only collected two on the night, characteristic of an off night on the boards for the Knights.
On the plus side for Rutgers, it broke convention by having a stellar night shooting, hitting 58 percent of its shots, up from its 25.8 percent mark Tuesday against Michigan State.
The Knights found a way to offset their sloppy play against NJIT through their shooting, something that could not have been said up until Thursday. Though Rutgers has had a string of games playing sloppy basketball, the team had yet to find a way to neutralize that.
It did so against NJIT, and that's all that matters until next time.
Of course, next time is just another two days away, when the team returns to the RAC to battle Fairleigh Dickinson for its fourth game in seven days.
"We figured out a way to win, grind out a game, and now we have (a) one-day turnaround," Pikiell said. "This is a really unbelievable stretch for us. I've never had a stretch of games like this where we don't have a lot of prep time. But we have to do a better job."
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