Rutgers misses out on repeat heroics over Nebraska, narrowly falling 60-54
Knights tread water on offense, shooting 34 percent in defense-heavy loss
The final minute almost called for a repeat of last year's heroics, but the Rutgers men's basketball team could not pull another game-winner out against Nebraska Wednesday night.
In place of a game-winner was the Scarlet Knights (12-10, 2-7) narrowly falling to the Cornhuskers (15-9, 6-4) at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), 60-54.
"They were a couple possessions better than us tonight," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "But 20 offensive rebounds, I thought we fought, I thought we really played hard. I thought our gameplan was good. Just a few possessions, needed a couple timely baskets."
What was expected to be a game of good defense and bad offense was exactly that, despite both sides picking up the pace in the second half. Not a novelty in Knights games this season, it was a poor-shooting affair between two of the worst scoring offenses in the conference, buoyed by strong defense on both ends.
But Nebraska pulling out the win was ultimately a matter of Rutgers' defense being unable to contain James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland, who had no trouble finding a rhythm early on, combining for 22 of the Huskers 27 first-half points.
Palmer especially took advantage of the shifting rotations the Knights slotted out on defense, exploiting mismatches by beating undersized defenders off the dribble en route to finishes at the hoop. The guard ended the night with 16 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Copeland broke out in the second half, finishing the night with 23 points on a 9-for-15 line from the field. The 6-foot-9-inch Georgetown transfer found success inside and outside, going 3-of-5 from deep while remaining a strong presence in the paint, contributing to Nebraska's 24 points in the paint Wednesday night.
Rutgers tried to match that presence inside and succeeded somewhat, with 30 points in the paint, both through guard play and the frontcourt.
"We're trying to do that now ... we're trying to get the ball a little closer to the rim," Pikiell said. "And we can rebound. We had a great rebounding night ... and that's partly why, more guys around the basket. When the 3's not going in, and it was one of those nights, I told the guys at halftime, we're just gonna drive it and get it up on that rim."
Though admittedly a low bar to pass, the Knights moved the ball around much better than they did the previous game, abandoning the limiting iso-offense they embodied in the loss to Michigan on the road last time out.
Everybody was involved on offense — even if the point totals do not show that — with Rutgers not settling for lobs across the perimeter for 25 seconds on possessions, a playstyle the team has resorted to in numerous games throughout the season.
One player who benefitted from that was fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman — who primarily lives out of the post and as an outlet for drivers on offense — who collected 10 points Wednesday night.
Junior guard Corey Sanders and freshman guard Geo Baker also dipped into double-digits, with 14 and 10 points, respectively.
Sanders shot 6-of-17 on the night, doing most of his work on drives to the rim, while Baker was the home side's main contributor on the outside, going 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, the only Knight to make a 3-pointer.
The team shot 17 percent (2-of-17) from deep Wednesday night, much of that due to an uncharacteristically cold game from sophomore guard Issa Thiam, who came into the game shooting 42 percent from 3. The Senegal native finished the night with an 0-of-7 line from outside the perimeter just a week after lighting up Iowa from downtown, in ways a microcosm of Rutgers' wavering shooting form throughout the season.
The up-and-down nature of the Knights' 2017-2018 campaign can be summed up simply at this point — when they shoot well, they win. Their defense has not been enough to propel them over competitive Big Ten sides, on account of their shooting showing up in far too few games.
"We gotta score," Pikiell said. "We're not the greatest scoring team to begin with, but when we have our nights and we're making shots, we can beat anybody."
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