Rutgers shocks Northwestern behind Sanders' heroics
Sanders scores 30 in win over Wildcats
"I didn't understand how open I was. I shot the ball. God let it go in. Overtime," junior guard Corey Sanders said.
When Sanders spoke about his game-tying shot with 6 seconds left, he still sounded like he was in disbelief at how much space he had.
After all, he had just scored 7-straight points to bring his team within 3, and in his three years at Rutgers, he has always been the guy to take the shot in a big moment. Everyone in the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) knew he would be shooting a 3-pointer.
But that is who Sanders is. When the Scarlet Knights need a hero, he steps up.
He did it against Illinois as a freshman. He did it against Nebraska as a sophomore. He did it against No. 15 Seton Hall, Wisconsin and No. 4 Michigan State this season.
He takes over games and no matter what the opposing coach draws up, there are times when he just can't be stopped.
With his team down 45-35 to Northwestern and just less than 10 minutes left, Sanders hit a seemingly routine jump shot. But that shot was so much more, as it sparked a 32-13 run that left the RAC chanting his name and the Wildcats walking off the floor in shock.
Rutgers (13-15, 3-12) looked dead in the water before that shot. It couldn't buy a bucket from behind the arc and Scottie Lindsey made three straight from deep to give Northwestern a double-digit lead.
But Sanders worked his magic once again, scoring 16 points from that point on, accounting for more than half of his 30. And as the team pulled away in overtime, the students at the RAC began chanting his name. The entire crowd joined in.
"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."
With senior guard Mike Williams and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi back and at full strength, there seemed to be a new energy within the team.
This wasn't the same group that got blown out at home by Indiana. It wasn't the same team that couldn't put up a fight on the road against Nebraska. It was the team that fans may have thought disappeared as the season comes to a close.
The Knights stormed back and looked like a veteran team closing out a win. After Omoruyi missed his first three free throws and Sanders missed his first, they went on to make 12 straight.
When Rutgers was down 56-50 with less than a minute remaining, Sanders was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer. He needed to make all three to give the Knights a chance to force overtime. He made all three.
In an entirely different scenario, with his team up 5 with less than a minute left in overtime, he had the opportunity to put the game away with two more from the charity stripe.
"We made our free throws," head coach Steve Pikiell said. "I get a million emails a week about free throw shooting, so I hope for one night I won't get that. We made them down the stretch."
And while fans will remember his tremendous offensive takeover, Pikiell always has his attention somewhere else.
The team defensive effort on the night was nothing short of spectacular, especially after the first half.
"To heck with the offense. I thought his defense was spectacular the whole night," Pikiell said. "... He was confident and he had a little swagger tonight, and that's how I want him to play."
Pikiell benched senior forward and captain Deshawn Freeman — one of his best defenders — in what he called a coach's decision. He said he wanted some new energy out on the court. His big men delivered. Not enough can be said about the energy and effort of Omoruyi, junior center Shaq Doorson and senior forward Candido Sa.
In the first half, the Wildcats shot 55.6 percent from the field, with more than half of their points coming from center Dererk Pardon and forward Aaron Falzon.
"I thought Falzon came in and gave them good looks," Pikiell said. "Pardon is a good player. I was very concerned with him in the post, but they’ve got a lot of perimeter guys that can shoot it too ... I felt comfortable and Shaq and Candido said they can guard him one-on-one in the post. I thought we did a great job in the second half."
In the second half and overtime, Northwestern shot 23.5 percent. Pardon scored just 2 points and Falzon was held scoreless.
After dropping seven straight games, Tuesday night's win was one that Rutgers desperately needed. The Knights no longer sit in last place in the conference and earned a big confidence boost heading into the final three games of the regular season and ultimately the Big Ten Tournament.
"I’m happy and proud for our guys," Pikiell said. "We’ve had a tough stretch. We’ve gotten through injuries, we’ve gotten through a lot of different things. These guys were awesome."