Rutgers upset by another mid-major side at home in Hartford, 60-58
One of the few things worse than the Rutgers men's basketball team losing to a visiting Hartford side is to do so just days after losing to a visiting Stony Brook squad.
The Scarlet Knights (10-5, 0-2) failed to eke out a victory over Hartford (7-7) Thursday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center, as the Hawks pulled off a 60-58 upset, giving Rutgers its second consecutive loss to a mid-major opponent.
The Knights fell behind multiple times to a Hawks side that they should have put away with ease, especially with the Stony Brook loss from a week prior looming over their heads.
"It's a humbling experience because you could be on the top of the world one day and then the next year you're at the bottom of the pedestal," said senior guard Mike Williams, in reference to the team's slide following its win over its recent win over Seton Hall.
Rutgers' game Thursday night was marred by slow starts in both halves, as the Knights jumped out to a 16-8 deficit in the opening minutes of the first half. Similarly in the second half, after closing the first with the lead, Rutgers allowed Hartford to gather a two-possession edge early, leaving the Knights scrambling for the rest of the half.
Junior guard Souf Mensah got the start at the point over junior guard Corey Sanders, but even so, Sanders was the one who steadied the ship for Rutgers early on, a pattern that did not translate to the second half.
After the Lakeland, Florida native made his first appearance at the 11-minute mark in the first half, Rutgers went on an 8-0 run to cut its sizable deficit, extending that to a 17-4 run soon after to give the Knights their first lead of the game, one they would battle to hold on to for the remainder of the contest.
But before that, Rutgers struggled mightily on the offensive end, with the team settling for contested jumpers on numerous occasions to no payoff. Even with the Knights getting open looks from mid-range early on, they still missed the majority of those opportunities.
That trend extended to the charity stripe, where Rutgers once again failed to convert its free throws, with the team shooting 54 percent from the line Thursday night. For the Hawks, they lived from the free-throw line, connecting at a 75 percent rate.
"Free throws all year long have been a problem. ... It's been a concern, it was a problem for us last year too," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "And when you're in close games, it's really a weapon, and we gotta make free throws down the stretch."
Where Hartford could not out-play the Knights was in the turnover game, as Rutgers' defense kept up its strong season form in forcing turnovers. The Hawks played a sloppy brand of basketball that the Knights have known all too well through the first half of the season, turning the ball over 13 times in the first half.
These were not self-inflicted turnovers either — much of Hartford's inability to hang onto the ball came out of Rutgers' stealing prowess, with the home side amassing nine steals in the first half.
But no matter how well the Knights started out the game on defense, it found itself simply unable to stop Hartford on offense in the second half. The Hawks cut down their turnover rate considerably — only mustering up four in the second half — and found their rhythm from the field, shooting 50 percent in the second half.
Fifty percent was enough to put Rutgers away and keep it from battling back, and with the Knights shooting a dismal 33 percent from the field Thursday night, there wasn't much question as to how.
With two losses to mid-major teams in the books, Rutgers' outstanding win over Seton Hall a few weeks back drifts further and further into the past.
"We're in a tough spot right now," Pikiell said. "Last couple games was not Rutgers basketball. It's my job to get us back on track, and it's part of the process too. I've been through this many times, you get some ups and some downs."
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