Rutgers prepares for final stretch of season at Maryland
Knights look to make it 2 straight wins
At halftime on Tuesday night, there was a lot of reason to believe the Rutgers men's basketball team would see its eighth straight loss.
Down 33-24 to the Northwestern Wildcats, the two sides went into the break with a 20-percent difference in field-goal percentage. Junior guard Corey Sanders was the only Scarlet Knight with more than 3 points. Rutgers was even lacking in the rebounding game, 18-13, one of the few categories it consistently controls from game to game.
Twenty minutes of regulation later, Sanders was knocking down the game-tying 3-pointer with 6 seconds on the clock.
A period of overtime later, and the Knights were 9 points up on the Wildcats and without a losing streak for the first time since mid-January.
"That's what you work for. That's what you dream of," Sanders said. "It's been nothing but love for me here. I love this place."
That is what Rutgers (13-15, 3-12) leaves Piscataway with heading into College Park on Saturday, to battle the Maryland Terrapins (17-11, 6-9) in the best circumstances imaginable for a team without any momentum just a few days prior.
Granted, there was not much to look at outside of Sanders Tuesday night, with the Lakeland, Florida native posting 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting en route to yet another game-changing basket in the final seconds.
"I thought Corey was in a great groove tonight," said head coach Steve Pikiell following the 67-58 win over Northwestern. "He knows I'm going to say this too — to heck with his offense, I thought his defense was spectacular the whole night. I thought he got through screens, I thought he did an unbelievable job and he was confident. He had a little swagger tonight and that's how I want him to play."
Whereas Sanders made up much of the offense, it was a strong defensive effort from the entire team that allowed the Knights to chip away at the Wildcats' lead gradually throughout the second half.
After allowing Northwestern to connect on 56 percent of its shots in the first half, Rutgers forced a 27-percent field-goal clip out of the visitors in the second half, while shooting 40 percent itself.
The Knights capitalized on the formula that had allowed them to pick up conference wins earlier in the season — serviceable shooting and strong defending — and with only three games to go before the Big Ten Tournament, there is no better time for Rutgers to regain that form.
The Knights hope to continue on that way with a win over Maryland, and that will once again demand a lot defensively out of Sanders in order to neutralize standout guard Anthony Cowan.
Cowan leads the Terrapins with 15.9 points per game, good for 10th in the Big Ten, and he supplements that with an average of 5.1 assists per game, taking advantage of the strong 3-point shooting around him.
Though defending the perimeter has not necessarily been a weakness for Rutgers this year, teams that do not normally shoot the 3 well have recently thrived from beyond the arc against the Knights. With Maryland boasting three 40-percent 3-point shooters, the outside defense of Sanders, freshman guard Geo Baker and senior guard Mike Williams could likely dictate the Terrapins' rhythm on offense.
That addition of Williams, alongside sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi, gives Rutgers flexibility on its rotations with two of its strongest defenders back on the court.
But if the Knights gets what it got out of Williams and Omoruyi offensively against Northwestern — 50-percent shooting from each and four offensive rebounds for Omoruyi — that is more support for the idea that a lot of the team's seven-game losing streak came from its lack of depth.
Rutgers got through losing two of its most physical players and now turns to its last three games of the regular season as redemption for all of the potential wins lost.
The Wildcats were the first on that list, and the Knights move into the Maryland matchup with that second-half comeback fresh in their mind.
"We've had a tough stretch. We've gotten through injuries. We've gotten through a lot of different things," Pikiell said after the win over Northwestern. "These guys were awesome."
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