Rutgers goes on road for final time in Ohio
Knights look to capture win over No. 16 Ohio State
Just four days after coming back from a disappointing start to snatch one away from Northwestern in overtime, the Rutgers men's basketball team got off to yet another disappointing start, this time without the comeback.
That is what the Scarlet Knights (13-16, 3-13) come with into their final road contest of the year against the No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes (22-7, 13-3).
"We just got to come out with energy and fight," said senior guard Mike Williams. "Instead we were getting our butt kicked with two 10-0 runs. We just got to come out and play that way the whole game. When we find out how to play a complete game like we did against Northwestern, there’s no way we can’t play with anybody."
Playing complete games has been a repetitive issue for Rutgers this season, and the team has only rarely been able to compensate for a poor 20 minutes. Its matchup with the Wildcats remains a striking example, with the Knights down 9 points at the end of the first half to take the game into overtime and win by 9 points.
In large part, that was due to getting the very best out of junior guard Corey Sanders, who poured in 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting, but on Saturday against the Terrapins, Rutgers found out what happens when it does not get those 30 points.
It took one half of basketball for the Knights to get into a groove, but it was not enough to offset a weak first half against a middling Maryland side. What that means for Rutgers heading into a matchup with a competitive Ohio State team is anybody's guess.
"We got off to another bad start," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "That's been a trademark for us in the past few games. After that, I thought we played them even. We got stops and we kept attacking the rim. We stopped settling for threes. We settled down and our defense kicked in."
The Buckeyes sit in third place in the Big Ten, but two consecutive double-digit losses to Penn State and No. 22 Michigan moved them from their perch above No. 8 Purdue in second place.
For Ohio State, it has primarily been a defensive issue, with opposing players Tony Carr and the entire Wolverine team having its way with the Buckeyes from the field. Carr put up 30 points for the Nittany Lions in their 79-56 win over Ohio State, while four Michigan players had double-digit points against the Buckeyes just three days later.
Ohio State is now amid its first losing streak since late November, as it faces a Knights side vulnerable to embarking on a new one.
Despite the Buckeyes having two straight losses on the books, it is still on Rutgers to go above its usual output on offense to steal one in Columbus. In both of those Ohio State losses, it allowed 48-percent shooting, a feat the Knights have not completed since their 78-76 loss to the then-No. 3 Boilermakers several weeks back.
And a win for Rutgers also prescribes reasonably holding down Keita Bates-Diop, as his 20 points and nine rebounds paced all players in the Buckeyes' win over the Knights in January.
The previous Big Ten leader in points before Carr usurped him, Bates-Diop has not let up even in this two-game slide, as he still slotted home his requisite 17 points last time out against Michigan.
Even more worrying for Rutgers comes the prospect of Jae'Sean Tate doubling down on his performance against the Wolverines — 20 points and 15 rebounds. The Knights essentially found that in the form of Bruno Fernando of the Terrapins on Saturday, who posted 18 points and 16 rebounds on 8-of-9 shooting, a stat-line that proved the difference, counteracting Rutgers' campaign back in the second half.
Individual players like that come with the competition of the conference, and the Knights themselves have found that their own players have the capacity to follow suit. Sanders has had similar games. Sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi has been gradually building to a breakout game as of late.
What Rutgers needs is to bring some of those performances together, and with only two regular season games remaining, it needs to happen against Ohio State.
"This is a great league," Pikiell said. "We just played a team that's 12-1 at home and was a preseason top-25 team. We didn't play well enough to win today. Nothing's easy in the league, it's the best league in the country top to bottom. Trying to win on the road in this league is hard. We have to keep fighting. We've got a couple more games and we're going to fight to the end."
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