Rutgers puts forth inspiring effort in 78-76 loss to No. 3 Purdue
No Mike Williams. No Eugene Omoruyi. The best team in the Big Ten. Rutgers never should've had a chance.
But somehow it did, as the Rutgers men's basketball team fought tooth and nail with No. 3 Purdue in front of a sold-out Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), despite falling by a final score of 78-76.
The RAC was as loud as it's ever been and the Scarlet Knights fed off that energy, putting on a show the 8,325-person capacity crowd.
Junior guard Corey Sanders' 31 points were the most he has ever scored in regulation and his offensive showcase kept a shorthanded Rutgers group in the game for all 40 minutes.
By the time the clock showed double zeroes, the Boilermakers had escaped with the win, but the scoreline proved that when the RAC is packed, anything can happen.
"We can play with anybody when we play like that, when we follow the game plan and execute and these guys play really well, it makes us really much tougher to play," said head coach Steve Pikiell of the effort.
Due to the injuries to Williams and Omoruyi, Pikiell was forced to go deep into his bench -- about as deep as he could possibly go. Walk-ons Jake Dadika and Luke Nathan each saw time, with Dadika getting minutes in the late second half and Nathan getting his first action that wasn't at the end of a blowout.
Pikiell was once again forced to use Matt Bullock, who didn't even play in the blowout wins early in the season due to the fact that he was simply not in shape. Despite not looking any different than he did in the early portion of the schedule, Bullock played a career-high 17 minutes.
Bullock did put forth a workmanlike effort, scoring 6 points and grabbing 6 rebounds -- including 2 offensive boards -- as well as dishing out an assist and making both of his foul shots. While he clearly wasn't Pikiell's optimal choice to play that much time, he played as hard as he could.
"Everyone needed to step up...Everyone came off the bench -- Shaq (Doorson) gave us good minutes, Candido (Sa) gave us good minutes and Matt (Bullock)," Pikiell said. "Everyone has to chip in and do their thing. Especially being down two of our most versatile guys... We don't have that versatility coming off our bench."
Considering the combinations of players that Pikiell had on the floor during Saturday's game, it was nothing short of miraculous that the Knights were not only able to stay competitive, but turn an 11-point halftime deficit into just 1 point numerous times in the second half.
There's just something about a sold-out RAC. Rutgers wasn't supposed to beat Seton Hall, was supposed to get blown out by Michigan State and had no business playing this Purdue team to the final whistle.
Sanders and true freshman guard Geo Baker conveyed that the team was playing with an extra edge tonight after two straight blowout losses, including a 31-point thrashing against last-place Illinois.
Baker described that game as 'embarrassing' and made it clear that he and the rest of the team took it to heart.
Sanders looked just as energized, as he went into takeover mode against the Boilermakers with his 31 points, including 21 in the second half alone.
"Our last two outings we weren't very proud of," Sanders said. "...Everybody had an extra chip on their shoulder. I think we came out and executed the game plan...We just came up short."
While the result wasn't what Rutgers wanted, it showed the continued progress that has taken progress under Steve Pikiell. The consistency isn't there and injuries certainly don't help, but the program is moving in the right direction.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter said he expected the same Rutgers team that upset Seton Hall in December to show up on Saturday and he was right. Corey Sanders took over, the defense locked up, but unlike that game, the Knights came up just short.
"Coach (Pikiell) is always telling us to take every game personal," Baker said. "We felt like we didn't really come out and compete last game. Like Corey said earlier, we all had an extra chip on our shoulder this game."