Rutgers vs. NJIT: Three Observations from a sloppy, but hard-earned win
Maybe it was a hangover after nearly upsetting No. 3 Michigan State on Tuesday, or maybe it was the sudden drop in opponent prestige, but the Rutgers men's basketball did not look ready to play against NJIT on Thursday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
The team found itself in a dogfight in the first half, going into the locker up by just 1 point. While the Scarlet Knights (7-3, 0-2) were able to play more composed in the second half, it was still a tight game and the Highlanders (5-4) stayed tough and played until the final whistle. By the time it was all said and done, Rutgers had earned a 73-64 victory but will certainly have a lot to improve on.
Here are three observations from the Knights' seventh win of the season.
Rutgers has a bad habit of playing down to its competition
This was not the first time the Knights have struggled against a low-major team like NJIT, as they have done so in nearly every such game this season. Just two days prior, Rutgers jumped out to an 8-0 lead to start the game against the No. 3 team in the country. Yet on Thursday, the Highlanders broke out to a 7-0 advantage. The game had a similar feel to the Knights' 71-67 win over Central Connecticut State, which was way too close for comfort. In that game, Rutgers came out flat and fell behind 10-2, and was never able to completely pull away. The Knights went up by 15 late in the game, but the Blue Devils came storming back to make it just a 4-point win.
Against NJIT, Rutgers was able to go up by as many as 17 points with under 9 minutes remaining, but the Highlanders never gave up and brought the game within single digits, forcing the Knights to earn every bit of their victory.
"I think our energy wasn't great," said head coach Steve Pikiell after the game. "... I hope (our players) learned from tonight. We usually play with tremendous energy and we didn't have that tonight."
Corey Sanders saved the team from a letdown
On a night where the Rutgers offense turned the ball over an atrocious 19 times, the junior guard out of Lakeland, Florida was the calming presence that the team desperately needed. He led the team with 18 points on an impressive 8-of-15 shooting night, while having just two turnovers. But most important of all, Sanders was the reason the Knights won the game. He was incredibly effective in the first half by shooting the ball and not turning the ball over in the first 20 minutes. When the Highlanders jumped out to an early lead, Sanders stepped up his game and got his team the lead. In the second half, he made a great bounce pass to senior guard Mike Williams under the basket, who finished the layup while being fouled, to give Rutgers a 44-38 lead that held for the remainder of the game.
Geo Baker showed the ability to make in-game adjustments
After a strong performance against No. 3 Michigan State, the true freshman guard had a rough game handling the ball, as his six turnovers were a big reason why the Knights could never really pull away. The good news, though, is that he was able to clean up his play in the second half. Of his six turnovers, four came in the first half and he was able to cut that number in half in the final 20 minutes. He was also able to find his scoring stroke again, putting up 11 points and making 3-of-4 foul shots to help close the game out. His four assists and two steals were also nice additions to his statline, but for the first time this season, he was able to put a poor first half behind him and not let it affect his play in the second half, which went a long way to helping his team win.