Rutgers takes Purdue to the final seconds in 82-75 loss in quarterfinals of Big Ten Tournament
Sanders, Baker combine for 48 points in 3rd-round loss to Boilermakers at Madison Square Garden
NEW YORK, N.Y. — There were not many people who expected "Let's Go Rutgers" chants to rain down in the final seconds of the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden (MSG).
The Rutgers men's basketball team (15-19, 5-16) closed its 2017-2018 campaign with a third-round 82-75 loss to No. 8 Purdue (27-5, 16-3) in what many will qualify as a program-defining contest.
Coming into the postseason as the No. 14 seed in the tournament, the Scarlet Knights pushed past Minnesota and Indiana in consecutive games only to take a strong-shooting Boilermakers side to the final seconds.
"Just a program that don't give up, that you can't count out, even though we were put last, (sic)" said junior guard Corey Sanders. "That's not how we're going to finish. That's not how we want to be remembered."
What Friday night's game showed was that much of what was left on the court will not be left in memory. If anything, for any Rutgers fan, it was a promising glimpse into the next few years under head coach Steve Pikiell.
Freshman guard Geo Baker had the best and most important performance of his collegiate career so far, matching his backcourt partner's tournament exploits with a 25-point night, shooting 50 percent from the field. Baker had no issue making his own shots Friday night — rivaling Sanders in that respect — extending himself out to the perimeter, where he went 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
"It feels really good," Baker said, on the confidence boost this gives him heading into the summer. "I've got great teammates and a great coach, always telling me to stay confident and ready ... But in terms for me, it felt really good going forward."
But of course, Baker's 25 points could only rival Sanders, because Sanders played how he has all tournament. The guard finished the night with 23 points on 11-of-20 shooting, putting his tournament total to 74 points.
Joining Baker and Sanders, not necessarily through his shooting, was senior guard Mike Williams in his final game as a Knight. The Brooklyn, New York native, standing at only 6 feet 2 inches tall, led his side in rebounds with eight — five coming on the offensive end — contributing to Rutgers' rebounding recovery from its last time out.
And it was not only Williams — the Knights as a whole made up for Thursday night's poor showing on the boards, where they were outrebounded 31-29 in their second-round win over Indiana.
Against a frontcourt of a 7-foot-2-inch Isaac Haas and a seven-rebounds-per-game Vincent Edwards, Rutgers amassed 36 rebounds compared to 28 for Purdue. That edge was especially felt on offense, with the team once again staying resourceful with its offensive rebounds, collecting 20 second-chance points on the night.
Despite not taking in many boards himself, junior center Shaquille Doorson played a massive part in keeping Haas out of the paint and cutting off the passing lines to the middle on defense.
Haas got his fair share of chances down low, but the Boilermakers were largely consigned to the perimeter.
A lot of that was the Knights' doing, with Rutgers being content with allowing them to hang out on the perimeter early on, as they struggled from deep to begin the game, missing their first seven attempts before Vincent Edwards and Dakota Mathias found their outside shots.
It took an entire half for Carsen Edwards to get going as well, but when he did, he sparked an 11-0 run out of the halftime break to give Purdue its first lead of the game, and he continued his onslaught from 3 well into the second half. The point guard made four 3-pointers on the night en route to a 26-point performance, and was joined by Vincent Edwards and Mathias who made four and three 3-pointers for the Boilermakers, respectively.
It was ultimately the 3-ball that did the Knights in, an issue that is difficult to stave off against the best 3-point-shooting team in the conference. Not much can be expected of a team facing another that makes 43 percent of its shots from 3 and 54 percent from the field as a whole.
For Rutgers to stay competitive until the final moments against that level of competition says a lot about the program's growth, Pikiell would contend. To him, Purdue is one of the best teams in the country.
"They're in the top two in the country in field goal percentage, making 3s," Pikiell said. "They're efficient. They have assists. They have the most experienced team in the conference. They have size. They have versatility. I mean, we outrebounded them. We did a lot of good things."
For the Knights — an essentially second-year program playing its third game in as many days against one of the best teams in the country — accomplishing what they did Friday night is as good an indicator as any of where they are moving on from MSG back to Piscataway.
The team is one round better than it was last year, and Pikiell sees that promise building.
"I think you're getting a dose of what we can be at Rutgers," Pikiell said. "I'm so excited about the future. I really am. And we're going to get better and better ... They liked the big stage, and I liked that they liked that. And that bodes well for us moving forward in this league."
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