Rutgers drops 5th game in a row with hard-fought 78-76 loss to No. 3 Purdue
Knights fail to cash in on upset trend across country, falling to 2-10 in Big Ten
On a college basketball Saturday rife with upsets, the Rutgers men's basketball team walked into its matchup with No. 3 Purdue optimistic that it could play the part of Oklahoma State, St. John's or Missouri.
Evidently, it was not the Scarlet Knights' (12-13, 2-10) job to curb the Boilermakers' (23-2, 12-0) 18-game winning streak, as Rutgers dropped its fifth game in a row in a heartbreaking 78-76 loss to Purdue at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) Saturday.
With sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi and senior guard Mike Williams — two of the Knights' strongest defenders off the bench — out with injury, it was always going to be a steep climb for a team that had just lost by 31 points to then-last-place Illinois.
"Our last two outings, we weren't very proud of," said junior guard Corey Sanders. "You don't get (many opportunities) to play one of the best teams in the nation at your house sold out, so today everybody had a little extra chip on their shoulder."
Uphill battle aside, it was far from the worst game Rutgers could have against one of the hottest teams in the country, especially on the offensive end, where the Knights have notoriously struggled this season.
For much of the game the team went through Sanders, who found success both in and out of the paint. Sanders finished the night leading both squads with 31 points on 13-of-27 shooting.
It was chiefly Sanders, along with fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman and his remarkable defense, that allowed Rutgers to crawl back into the game in the second half, putting the home side as close as 1 point within the visiting Boilermakers. Twenty-one of Sanders's 31 points came in the second half, leaving Purdue's head coach Matt Painter with plenty to say about his opponents' shooting Saturday.
"They made tough shots," Painter said. "Corey Sanders, Geo Baker, those guys had a really good game. They made a lot of tough one-on-one plays. ... They made a lot of them tonight, and you have to give them credit."
The almost-comeback was part Sanders and freshman guard Geo Baker (who had 16 points) driving to the basket and part Freeman and junior center Shaquille Doorson picking up the scraps with putbacks. The Knights scored 12 of their 14 second-chance points in the second half, with Freeman and Doorson effectively keeping out Purdue's tall frontcourt.
Rutgers as a whole got a lot of shots past the block-happy duo of Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms — measuring in at 7 feet 2 inches and 7 feet 3 inches, respectively — and in fact, the Knights had their own block party of sorts in the first half.
They kicked off Saturday's contest with three rapid-fire blocks all in the same possession, including Freeman getting one in on Haas, who has 7 inches on the North Carolina-native.
Less blockable on Saturday afternoon was surprisingly 6-foot-4-inch guard Dakota Mathias. Mathias was deadly from 3, stymieing any and all momentum for Rutgers on the day with a 4-of-7 line from outside. His 3-pointers seemed to come at the least opportune times for the Knights, when they were getting out on runs of their own, but Mathias never let up, doing most of his work in the second half.
Joining Mathias in thwarting Rutgers' comeback attempt was Vincent Edwards, who helped out in all areas on the court, collecting 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists on the day, adding on to that a few major baskets in the last few minutes to stretch out Purdue's lead.
On Saturday, the Knights learned that outrebounding and outshooting the opposition does not mean much when that team is Purdue. Despite Rutgers having its best shooting performance since the win over Iowa and despite it bettering the Boilermakers on the boards by a 12-rebound margin, it still was not enough to knock off the third-best team in the country.
A lot of that comes down to Purdue's 86-percent mark from the free-throw line, making 25 of its 29 attempts, compared to the Knights only getting to the line 10 times on Saturday.
It will go down as the reason Rutgers lost to the Boilermakers, but there is merit in looking at the peripherals affecting this Knights side coming into the contest. Two of its most versatile players out injured and coming off of four consecutive losses are the last things a team wants to worry about before facing a team like Purdue.
For all of Rutgers' lack of consistency this season, it means the team knows its way back from the bottom of the mountain at least half the time.
"Everyone needed to step up their game," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "We're down to eight scholarship guys, let's go. And by the way, we're playing the best team in the country. ... We had to really step it up, and I thought we did, and again came up short. But certainly not because the guys didn't step up."
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