Rutgers downs No. 22 Iowa on road in revenge game
As the old proverb goes: Revenge is a dish best served cold, meaning vengeance is often more satisfying if it isn't exacted immediately.
Two weeks ago, the Rutgers men’s basketball team was stunned by Iowa inside the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on a miraculous buzzer-beating shot. So when Saturday’s contest against the No. 22 Hawkeyes (21-8, 10-8) came around, the Scarlet Knights (14-14, 7-11) were salivating at the chance to dish out some payback.
Which they did.
From beginning to end, Rutgers steamrolled past Iowa, who was celebrating its senior night. Nevertheless, it was the Knights’ night as they handily defeated the Hawkeyes, 86-72, for their third conference road win of the season and the first against a top-25 team since 2008.
“We're getting better and we're doing it in a league that is at its best since I've been here, top to bottom,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Good for our guys, especially our young guys to do that in this environment.”
Entering the game as clear underdogs, Rutgers actually led the match for the final 34 minutes and it quickly became a laugher. In fact, the Knights were up by as much as 21 points thanks to a plethora of players.
Most notably, true freshman guard Ron Harper Jr., who scored what was then a career-high 16 points the last time the two squads met, torched Iowa once again.
Picking up where he left off, Harper Jr. led all scorers and finished with a career-high 27 points — the most by a Rutgers freshman in a Big Ten regulation game since former guard Corey Sanders put up 28 against Nebraska on Feb. 2, 2016.
“It was important to get off to a good start. Iowa is a team that can (hit) 5 3's in a row and set the tempo so us coming out and hitting our shots and going up early was a big key to us winning the game,” Harper Jr. said.
Joining their classmate in double-digit points were true freshmen guards Caleb McConnell and Montez Mathis, with 11 and 10, respectively. Neither one of them is a stranger to 20-point games either as they have both reached or eclipsed that mark this season as well.
Junior guard Issa Thiam, who came off the bench and found his stroke from 3, also had a double-digit scoring display, putting up 13 points on 4-6 from behind the arc. He scored the Knights’ final 9 points in the first half, all from deep, to give Rutgers a huge spark going inside its locker room.
It was the first time Thiam, who had been seeing a steady decrease in minutes and was averaging 1 point in conference play, entered double-digit points in over three months.
“This was a good response for us,” said sophomore guard Geo Baker. “To come out like we did on the road, I'm really proud of my teammates and our coaches. I thought we fought really hard today to come out with a big win.”
While Baker finished with just 9 points, he had his hand everywhere in the game, finishing with nine assists, six rebounds and two steals. His nine assists tied a season-high and became contagious, as 21 of the 30 field goals made by the Knights were off an assist.
That kind of passing is a big reason why all but one player who entered the game made at least one field goal, and why Rutgers shot 11-23 from deep, looking like the team who started the season 2-0 and couldn’t miss from downtown.
“All credit to my teammates, they found me for open shots. I got a feel for the game and so I just kept putting them up,” Harper Jr. said, who led the shooting barrage.
Now, with just two games left until the Big Ten Tournament, the Knights will come back home to play Penn State (12-17, 5-13) on March 6 before heading back on the road to finish their regular season against Indiana (15-14, 6-12) — two teams Rutgers has beaten already this season.
The Knights have yet to clinch a top-10 seed in the tournament but if they win both games, that coveted first-round bye will be theirs.
“This is the best league in the country. We're a young team, we're figuring things out,” Pikiell said.
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