Corey Sanders wills Rutgers to first Big Ten win over Nebraska
All 6,294 people packed inside of the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Saturday afternoon likely had a hunch that the ball, along with the fate of the Rutgers men's basketball team, was going to wind up in the hands of Corey Sanders.
And as the Scarlet Knights came out of a timeout trailing Nebraska by 1 point with under 10 seconds left, that's exactly what happened.
The sophomore guard was put in a pick-and-roll with junior forward Deshawn Freeman on the left side of the court, with Freeman setting a screen to free up Sanders toward the inside. Cornhuskers' forward Jack McVeigh, who moments ago seemed to have buried Rutgers by knocking down two consecutive treys, stayed home rather than following Freeman out to the arc to put himself between Sanders and the basket.
With a defender both in front of him and to his right, Sanders split the double team, attacked the rim and put up a tough, off-balance shot. After bouncing off the right side of the glass, the ball tipped off the outstretched arms of senior center C.J. Gettys before landing back into the arms of Sanders.
Without hesitation, Sanders rose and banked in a shot off the glass with one second left, sending the RAC into a frenzy.
The last-second bucket gave Sanders a season-high 25 points and, more notably, pushed the Knights to a 65-64 win over Nebraska to snap a seven game losing streak and earn head coach Steve Pikiell his first Big Ten win.
"We've been in tight games. I've been in this situation before. That spot I wasn't too worried about," Sanders said. "I knew I was going to take the last shot. But I just have to give it to C.J. (Gettys) because I missed the first one. Without C.J. down there keeping it alive for me, I don't think the game would've went how it went. So I'm just very proud to say that he kept it alive for me."
Rutgers was in a position to win the game mostly because of the efforts by Sanders on both ends of the court late in the game.
With the Knights trailing 64-59 and 90 seconds left on the clock, Sanders found Gettys inside off a pick-and-roll for a lay up. Following a stop and two free throws from Freeman, Rutgers trailed by 1 point with 30 seconds left and was one defensive stand away from giving itself a chance to win the game.
Nebraska put the ball in the hands of its leading scorer of the season, senior guard Tai Webster, who dribbled out as much of the clock as he could before driving to the rim and bouncing the ball off of his foot.
The loose ball landed right into the grasp of Sanders, setting up the Knights to win the game.
"We wanted to get the ball in Corey's hands and make something happen," Pikiell said. "I thought we had a couple different options on that play and when he got to the rim, they iced the ball screens, so they did a good job, but he attacked like he was supposed to do and got the ball up on the rim. We wanted to have a chance and knew we would get a rebound attempt."
That wasn't the only time Rutgers had to claw back from a deficit late in the game either. With the game locked at 44, Nebraska reeled off 7 unanswered points and looked poised to run away with the game. Out of a timeout, Sanders knocked down a pull-up jumper, which was the start of 15-7 run.
Sanders scored the final 8 points of that run, including 10 overall, to give the Knights a 59-58 advantage.
"We came out of halftime and he got hot and he was just going on a roll," said junior guard Nigel Johnson. "So we strung together 8 straight points and from there, we knew it was his game so we just kept giving him the ball and letting him operate and letting him get his good looks and let him carry the team tonight and he did that."
The sophomore guard accounted for over half of Rutgers' points in the latter half, pouring in 18 points on an efficient 8-for-13 clip from the field. Sanders scored in a variety of ways, mixing in pull-up jumpers and free throws, cleaning up the offensive glass and finishing at the rim in both the half court and transition game. He also led the team in assists with four set-ups.
Sanders was all over the place on the other end of the court in the second half as well. The Lakeland, Florida native pulled down four defensive rebounds, swatted away two shots and came up with the critical steal on Watson late in the game. All three of his key plays led to transition baskets on the other end.
"(Defense) is our big emphasis," Sanders said. "(Assistant Coach) Jay Young is always on our backs 24/7 about defense. After the Indiana game, he called me in the next day. I just watched coming off screens and how I can make myself a better defense player, shortening the floor and making things easier. All the guys contribute to that. I think we played great defense. ... Our defense is what keeps us in the game most of the time."
Following a shaky start to the season on the offensive end, shooting and scoring wise, Sanders has more than hit his stride in the middle of Big Ten play. Following Saturday's performance, Sanders has averaged 19 points on an impressive 48.7 percent shooting clip from the field over the past five games.
But unlike the first four games, the Knights were able to capitalize on Sanders' strong play and collect a conference victory.
"(When they took) that 7-point lead, (it) was like, alright, what are we going to do?," Sanders said. "Coach always says you're going to hit adversity, so what are you going to do when you hit adversity? Today, we were able to hit adversity and capitalize."
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