Corey Sanders plays hero once again as Rutgers defeats Wisconsin for first Big Ten win of season
After three straight uninspiring losses, the Rutgers men's basketball team was in desperate need of a win. The Scarlet Knights faced off with Big Ten foe Wisconsin at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Friday night looking to do just that.
With the Badgers boasting reigning First Team All-Big Ten forward Ethan Happ, the team leader in points, rebounds and assists, Rutgers was in for a tall task.
But once again, in a pivotal moment, it was junior guard Corey Sanders who took control of the game and led the Knights to a 64-60 victory.
With 3:42 left in the game, fifth-year senior captain and forward Deshawn Freeman threw down a ferocious fast break dunk that put Rutgers up 53-46 and the RAC erupted.
But in an eerily similar fashion to last season -- when it came back from a 9-point deficit with just over 3 minutes remaining -- Wisconsin went on a 7-0 run to tie the game at 53 with just over 2 minutes left.
Then Corey Sanders happened.
"It kinda felt like 'Oh man, here we go again,'" Sanders said. "After that timeout, (the) coaches insured us (that) we're gonna come out and we're gonna get stops and we came out and got stops and executed."
The point guard out of Lakeland, Florida scored 6 straight points, including a three-pointer over Happ from way beyond the line to put his team up 5 with under a minute left.
It was the second straight home win that came as a result of Sanders taking over late, as his play at the end of the second half helped secure an upset win over then-No. 15 Seton Hall.
"I always seem to get into a zone when it comes down like that," He said. "As a veteran guard, I gotta be poised, I gotta be the one to come down and make a play for our team."
He did just that, as a free throw to put the Knights up 59-53 with 47 seconds left all but clinched Rutgers' first Big Ten win of the season.
Head coach Steve Pikiell was escatic with Sanders' effort, but not necessarily for his 23 points on 10 of 19 shooting.
"I thought he was really good defensively today against a really good point guard (Brad Davison)," Pikiell said. "... I'm pleased when shots go in, but I'm really pleased with his defensive effort and that was a bonus today."
Rightfully so, Pikiell couldn't stop talking about the team's defensive effort, as the combination of Freeman, Eugene Omoruyi and Candido Sa combined to shut down Happ, forcing him into a career-high 7 turnovers and just 10 points on 4 of 10 shooting.
Going into the game, he was averaging 17.1 points per game and a 57.4 percent field goal mark, both top-10 in the conference.
"We had relentless effort. Everyone came into the game and gave us some great stuff," Pikiell said. "...We made some timely plays down the stretch... Great team win."
Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard was complimentary of the way Rutgers played, praising the Knights for making clutch shots while his team could not.
His team committed 14 turnovers to just 13 assists and didn't make a three-pointer for the first 38 minutes of the game and finished just 2 of 13.
"I thought Corey hit some tough shots. The one over Happ, I'll have to see how far, I was told it was about 25 feet. I'll see on film how far it was," Gard said. "They made some tough shots when they needed to."
Almost a year after blowing that 9-point lead at Madison Square Garden, Sanders made sure there was no repeat. When the clock winds down and the score is tight, there is no one on the team that would rather have the ball than Sanders, and more often than not he makes it count.
8 days ago, Sanders turned the ball over late in a heartbreaking loss to Hartford. But on Friday, he did not turn the ball over once and executed as well as one could and willed his team to a hard-fought and well-earned conference victory.
"We're just resilient. We're learning to fight and don't get down on ourselves," Sanders said. "...If we execute, we're gonna be good... As long as we buy into the system, we're gonna go far."