Rutgers closes regular season with 75-62 loss to Illinois at RAC
Knights honor Freeman, Williams, Dadika, Sa on Senior Day
In what will likely be a precursor to the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Rutgers men's basketball team and the Illinois Fighting Illini met to close the regular season Sunday afternoon.
Four Scarlet Knights bid farewell to the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), as Rutgers (13-18, 3-15) clinched 13th place in the conference with a 75-62 loss to Illinois (14-17, 4-14).
"They made shots and they made their free throws," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "That's a team that defends. We got a couple good looks I think we needed to capitalize (on). We didn't make free throws when we needed to. They played really good defense, and they made some big shots."
It seemed as if the Knights were drawing on the excitement of Senior Day in the opening minutes, as senior guards Mike Williams and Jake Dadika got the starting nods alongside usual starter fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman. These were more than just courtesy moves from Pikiell as well, with each playing substantial minutes.
It was Dadika's first career start on the Banks, and he helped set the pace for an early offense that moved the ball as well as any starting five Rutgers has trotted out so far this season.
The Knights began the day with three baskets in their first three attempts, with assists leading to each of them, a part of Rutgers' offense that has been missing all season, with the team coming into the game ranked last in the Big Ten in assists per game with 10.
But ball movement was the least of the Knights' issues in the opening minutes, with the team getting out into transition and converting their fast breaks with unselfish passing. Rutgers also moved the ball well in a set offense, passing up semi-open jumpers for cuts in the paint.
The team finished the day with 28 points in the paint, and Freeman was a major contributor in that respect. The Rocky Mount, North Carolina, native closed his career at the RAC with 11 points on 75-percent shooting and four rebounds to boot.
Even so, Freeman hit foul trouble early and fouled out with more than 4 minutes remaining, leaving him with a sizable chip on his shoulder heading into the postseason.
"It doesn't really matter to me," Freeman said, on who the team faces in the first round on Wednesday. "I ended the game tonight not the way I wanted, (but) playing Illinois again would probably make me feel a little better."
Alongside Freeman were junior guard Corey Sanders and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, who led the Knights in scoring on Sunday with 18 and 11 points, respectively. Sanders went 6-of-11 from the field, and Omoruyi held a 67-percent clip, correcting his season-long free-throw struggles with a 6-of-7 mark from the line.
Rutgers was not lacking in individual output, but as the game wore on, the team was unable to recapture the pass-heavy offense of the initial few minutes.
The Illini's second-half zone defense gave the Knights issues with working the ball inside, and though their shooting did not suffer, Rutgers' passing game never returned to form.
The Knights — typically a team that can take care of the ball — were also plagued by their turnover count on Sunday, giving the ball up 16 times, with freshman guard Geo Baker having a particularly rough go at it, tallying five of those.
Illinois took advantage of Rutgers' sloppiness with 21 points off turnovers, compared to only 11 for the Knights.
That, coupled with their bench seemingly being unable to miss on offense, gave the Illini an important leg up on Rutgers Sunday. Illinois' bench outscored the Knights, 37-5, and a large part of that came from Michael Finke.
The 6-foot-10-inch forward had his way on both sides of the perimeter, getting to the foul line often and making 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Finke was joined by Aaron Jordan (also off the bench), Trent Frazier and Leron Black in proficiency from 3 Sunday afternoon, with the trio combining for seven baskets from downtown on the day.
Guarding the perimeter was a problem for Rutgers the last time these two teams played each other, and it was just as troublesome for the Knights this time around, with Finke, Jordan, Frazier and Black leading the way. The visitors shot 9-of-22 from deep in the win over Rutgers and 50 percent in the second half, effectively thwarting any runs the Knights tried to mount against them.
The Illini's resilience led them to their first away win of the season, leaving Rutgers as the only team in the Big Ten not to win on the road this year.
Despite the seniors not getting the sendoff at the RAC they were perhaps hoping for, they are adamant on the fact that the last home game does not mean the last game.
Barring a win for Iowa over Northwestern, the Knights will meet Illinois for the third time this season, this time at Madison Square Garden. For seniors like Williams, that is where their attention is focused.
"We're looking forward to playing at the Garden," Williams said. "On to the next game."
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