Despite coming up short, Rutgers sends powerful message in season-ending loss to No. 8 Purdue
NEW YORK, N.Y. — "They brought a lot of respect to this uniform," said head coach Steve Pikiell.
And he could not have put it any better.
The Rutgers men's basketball team entered the Big Ten Tournament with zero respect from anyone outside the program.
Despite dropping a hard-fought 82-75 contest to No. 8 Purdue on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the Scarlet Knights walked off the court with the attention of the college basketball world.
Rutgers is no longer a pushover, an automatic win or a conference bottom feeder.
The past three days in New York City have cemented junior guard Corey Sanders as one of the greatest Knights in the last 20 years and the program as one that is here to stay.
True freshman guard Geo Baker led the team with 25 points against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Sanders kicked in another 23, with the two guards looking like they were messing around on the public courts and not the biggest stage in basketball.
"I just wanted to step up for the seniors," Baker said. "We didn't want to go home. I knew that if we lost, it's their last game ever with the program. Just thinking about that just made me want to fight even more. It just sucks that we came up short."
It was an emotional locker room, with several players wiping away tears and exchanging hugs with seniors such as guard Mike Williams, who earned the respect and admiration of every Rutgers fan with his play the last two seasons under Pikiell.
After injuring his ankle in practice earlier in the year, many people, including Pikiell, thought his Knights career would be over. But he fought back and made it back to the court to finish out his four years.
"(I) didn't think I would even have him back. Tells you what kind of a kid he is, and that tells you what a Scarlet Knight is moving forward," Pikiell said of Williams. "He'll be an example to me and the rest of the team for the rest of my career. There will be a big picture of Mike in my office, and next year at this time I'll be calling him somewhere and I'll be wishing he had another year of eligibility."
Friday marked the final game for Williams and fellow captains forward Deshawn Freeman and guard Jake Dadika, as well as forward Candido Sa.
While it was a heartbreaking way for those four to go out, they all committed to Pikiell's vision when he was first hired and helped to lay a strong foundation for the future.
"We gave it our all. I'm proud of the guys," Freeman said after the game.
Sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi contributed just 4 points against the Boilermakers, but had a breakout second season where he established himself as a top defender in the conference and a player that will not be denied a rebound or loose ball.
That mindset comes from the leadership of players like Williams, who said he hoped to leave a "never say die" legacy and wanted to be remembered as a player that was never out-worked.
"Everything... They've taught me everything," Omoruyi said of the four seniors. "Every time I get ahead of myself, they calm me down. They've done everything for me."
Williams may not have ended his career the way he dreamed of, but he knows that the way Rutgers played on Friday, the days of the Knights being a laughing stock are over.
The team now has something extremely exciting to look forward to next season.
"Yeah, that's gonna stop. Definitely," he said. "We just showed the world that we can play the No. 8 team in the nation and give them a huge scare. I'm just happy that I was able to be a part of the foundation. Happy I was able to be a part of something special. Nobody said this was gonna be easy. We showed the world that Rutgers is a team to be reckoned with."
As for the future, Baker put on a show for the world against Purdue, and with three years left of him, the Big Ten is in for a new era of Rutgers basketball.
And while the Knights will be lauded for their effort, Baker said that the way they came so close and the way they played the last three days will only force him to work harder.
"A game like this, a run like this actually makes you want to work harder," Baker said. "It makes you want to go to the gym more, it makes you want to be better cause we understand how good we can be."