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Notebook: Free throw woes loom large in Rutgers' loss to No. 22 Maryland

Guard Corey Sanders rises up for a midrange jump shot when the Terps played Rutgers on Jan. 24, 2017 at Xfinity Center. (Christian Jenkins/For The Diamondback)
Guard Corey Sanders rises up for a midrange jump shot when the Terps played Rutgers on Jan. 24, 2017 at Xfinity Center. (Christian Jenkins/For The Diamondback)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Rutgers men's basketball team faced an uphill battle before the ball was even tipped off Tuesday night. 

The Scarlet Knights were 11.5-point road underdogs pitted against No. 22 Maryland in front of a raucous sold-out crowd of 17,900 at the Xfinity Center. 

If Rutgers were to put itself in a position to secure its second consecutive conference win, its first-ever Big Ten road win and, most notably, pull off an upset of the top-25 Terrapins, the Knights were going to need to ensure they didn't make that upset bid any harder on themselves. 

When the final buzzer sounded, the Knights had checked off most of the boxes needed for a heavy underdog to steal a win. Rutgers won the turnover battle (18-15) and the battle on the boards (40-39). The Knights pulled down 22 offensive rebounds, compared to Maryland's 12, while also limiting the Terrapins to just eight made 3-pointers. 

But an area that has plagued Rutgers all season long continued to haunt the Knights in College Park and made that uphill battle too steep conquer.

Rutgers made just 10 of its 24 attempts from the free-throw line, good for just a 42 percent clip, as it fell short of that signature upset in a 67-55 loss to Maryland.

"It seems to be the moral of the story every time we lose," said junior guard Nigel Johnson. "We're leaving a lot of points off the board at the free throw line. To give you an answer of what's going on, I can't really put my finger on it. It might just be as simple as focus. We might just be rushing it at the line when we get there, something along those lines. If we capitalize on our free throws, of course, we're not going to make every one, but if we just make 70 to 75 percent of our free throws, I feel like we'll get a lot more wins than we have been."

Despite entering the game as the Big Ten's worst free throw shooting team with a team-average clip at a touch below 64 percent, the Knights seemed to have possibly turned a corner in their win over Nebraska on Saturday. 

Rutgers knocked home 14 of its 20 attempts from the line as it secured its first conference win of the season.

But the Knights quickly reverted to their old ways Tuesday night, missing 3 of its first 9 attempts and 5 of 12 overall in the first half. Despite leaving those points at the line, Rutgers faced just a 5-point deficit after 20 minutes of action. 

But those struggles from the line became more detrimental as Maryland found its groove on offense in the second half. Leading Rutgers 38-35 over three minutes in the second half, the Terrapins would reel off a 16-3 run over the next five minutes of action to take a commanding 16-point lead.

The Knights wouldn't go down without a fight, trimming the lead to as low as 9 points with over five minutes remaining, but seven more missed free throws down the stretch limited them from getting any closer than that. 

"It hurts because we need the free throws," said sophomore guard Corey Sanders. "They’re free, no one is guarding you and you just gotta will it in, but for some reason, it’s hard, it’s hard for us to make free throws so that’s something we gonna have to work on going down the stretch."

And when a team's number of missed free throws is greater than the number of points it lost by, those misses from the stripe become even more frustrating. 

"We’ve just been having bad free throw games," Sanders said. "Last game we made most of our free throws and we needed every single one of them, we won by one point. When you miss a lot of free throws and you lose the game by as many as you miss, it’s kind of frustrating."

There hasn't been one player that has simply dragged down Rutgers' percentage from the line with a high volume of misses, as it has been a collective effort. Against Maryland, both Sanders and junior forward Deshawn Freeman missed four free throws. Senior center C.J. Gettys and sophomore forward Ibrahima Diallo each missed both of their two free throw attempts. 

Of six players who have attempted at least 30 free throws this season, only junior guard Mike Williams is shooting above a 70 percent clip. 

For a team that struggles in the half court, in large part due to its conference-worst sub-30 percent clip from deep, the Knights' woes from the line become even louder.

Head coach Steve Pikiell believes his players are capable of making shots from the charity stripe, even in hostile environments such as the one in College Park.

As simple as it sounds, it just comes down to players stepping up to the line in the heat of the moment and making the shot.

"We gotta do a great job of keeping them confident from the foul line," Pikiell said. "We’ve done an hour shooting, we’ve done streaks, we’ve done a lot of different things, so we just gotta keep being creative with it. Gotta be mentally tough to go to the foul line and make free throws and that’s probably not where we need to be. These guys are all capable — they make 100 in a row in practice so a little different when you’re in an environment like this. You gotta step up and make free throws."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports

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