Rutgers makes right on home court advantage in Big Ten Tournament
NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Big Ten traditionalists weren't happy when the conference tournament was moved to Madison Square Garden in New York City for 2018.
They were used to midwest settings in Indianapolis and Chicago, and the only team that can claim New York is Rutgers, who has finished in last place in all four of its years as a member of the Big Ten.
But the Scarlet Knights took complete advantage of playing less than hour from campus, putting away 11th seeded Minnesota by a score of 65-54 on Wednesday night.
Despite heading into the Tournament as the last-place team, Rutgers looked anything but that. The Knights physically dominated Richard Pitino's Golden Gophers, out-rebounding them by a margin of 49-28 in total boards and 15-5 on the offensive glass.
The star for Rutgers was junior guard Corey Sanders, who took control of the game in the first half and didn't let down one bit. He scored 15 in the first period, adding another 8 in the second to finish with 23. But he also excelled in more important ways, grabbing seven rebounds and having no turnovers.
He fed off a crowd that was at least 90 percent Rutgers fans, as the Scarlet Knight faithful did their part in motivating the team to victory.
"That was amazing, man," Sanders said of the crowd. "It was a lot of love, a lot of support. That just shows our fans. It's been like that all year -- all three years I've been here. Our fans are amazing. Just to have that love is great."
With the Big Ten Tournament only being at Madison Square Garden for this season before heading back out to Chicago and Indianapolis through 2022, Wednesday night was the perfect chance for both Rutgers fans and the team to put on a show for the rest of the Big Ten.
Crowds are usually sparse for the opening night of conference tournaments, as it features the worst teams in the league, but fans and students donned in scarlet had no problem making the trip to the historic venue.
Of all the players on the team, playing in New York City meant the most to senior guard and Brooklyn-native Mike Williams. Leading into the game, Williams said that he always plays better in New York and certainly backed that up on Wednesday.
He scored 12 points on 4 of 8 shooting, but had five rebounds, including a huge offensive board late in the second half that gave his team another possession as it tried to close out the win.
During the ensuing timeout, the crowd began chanting his name, the first time Rutgers fans have done that for Williams, and on his home turf nonetheless.
"It feels great. I'm very appreciative of the Rutgers faithful," Williams said of the chant. "They stick with us, they've stuck with my whole four years with a lot of ups and downs...I'm just taking to take in every minute of it, try to treasure it. I wanna keep surviving and advancing. I'm not trying to go home yet."
Head coach Steve Pikiell looked like he was ready to run onto the court and play defense with the amount of energy he showed on the sideline.
Pikiell and Jay Young installed a defensive gameplan that limited Jordan Murphy -- who averages 17 points and 11 rebounds and had a double-double in 25 of 32 games -- to 11 points, nine rebounds and four turnovers. Starting point guard Nate Mason was held to a 28.5 percent mark from the field and was forced into three turnovers.
The Knights showed relentless energy on defense in a give-and-take effort with the crowd behind them.
Even in the first half, when Rutgers would put together consecutive scores, the crowd rose to its feet and made a difference.
"Rutgers nation is the best," Pikiell said. "It’s a great university and they come out and support us. We played really hard for them today. I’m really happy for our guys."
And Deshawn Freeman, who had two huge defensive rebounds and made all four of his free throws in crunch time, recognized that this win was not enough.
He knew that when the Knights have the fans behind them, anything is possible.
"With them, I feel like we can do something."