Rutgers advances to 2nd round of Big Ten Tournament with 65-54 win over Minnesota at MSG
Corey Sanders leads Knights with 23 points to force 2nd-round matchup against Indiana
NEW YORK, N.Y. — There are not many people outside of the tri-state area who are thrilled about the Big Ten Championships being held at Madison Square Garden.
For the Rutgers men's basketball team — who celebrated a 65-54 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-17, 4-15) in the first round Wednesday night with "R! U!" chants from the Scarlet Knight contingent — that is not the case.
Rutgers (14-18, 4-15) drew off of the pseudo-home court Wednesday night and will head to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament for the second year in a row, with the team slated to face the Indiana Hoosiers Thursday night.
"It's a great atmosphere," said senior guard Mike Williams, who did not have as far a trek as the Gophers, hailing from Brooklyn, New York. "I think the Big Ten did this on purpose, because it's my senior year, and I wanted to close it out here ... I had a great crowd here, my family was here. It was great for Rutgers faithful to come here and watch us play. We just gotta keep the ball rolling and hopefully have a lot more fans tomorrow."
The Knights stuck to what they know and do best, even against far and away the best rebounder in the conference in Jordan Murphy. The team amassed 15 offensive rebounds on the night — compared to five from Minnesota — and doubled down on those boards by taking advantage of its second-chance opportunities as well.
Every forward who hit the floor for Rutgers had a hand in its onslaught on the boards Wednesday night, with fifth-year senior forward Deshawn Freeman and sophomore forwards Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi leading the charge on both ends of the floor.
Outside of clearing the paint for his own rebounds, Omoruyi took the Gophers' strongest offensive product to task in Murphy and held him to 11 points and only one offensive rebound. Much of that came from getting the 6-foot-7-inch forward in foul trouble early, as Murphy was stuck on the bench for most of the first half.
It took 22 game minutes for Murphy to hit his first shot, as Omoruyi — who missed out on the Big Ten's All-Defensive Team to the dismay of many of the Knights faithful — did well in locking the San Antonio native down.
Putting the ball through the hoop was not a problem exclusive to Murphy, with Minnesota failing to knock down a field goal for the first 9.5 minutes of the game. Still, the Gophers stayed within reach of Rutgers by drawing foul after foul in the opening minutes, getting to the line 10 times in that same span.
Neutralizing that was junior guard Corey Sanders, who once again set the scoring standard for the Knights with 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting. Sanders's six defensive rebounds kept the tempo relatively high on offense, and he supplemented that with his requisite drives to the hoop and step-back jumpers.
"He's terrific. I love him," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "He did a great job today on both ends of the floor. Nate Mason is a real problem, so I'm really pleased that Sanders made big shots and big stops. Everyone contributed, but he was special."
Rutgers as a whole worked primarily through its inside game, relying on the strengths of players like Omoruyi and junior center Shaquille Doorson, who got his second career start Wednesday night. Pikiell continued the trend he has kept up over the last several games with an entirely new starting five, with Thiam, Omoruyi and Williams joining Doorson and Sanders.
There was novelty around for the Knights Wednesday night, as the team clinched its victory in a way it has not done all season — from the free-throw line. Though Rutgers only shot 70 percent from the stripe as a whole, the shots went down when they counted.
Those shots will count Thursday night too, and the Knights will need to replicate Wednesday night's first 37 minutes in order to get to that point. But for Pikiell and the rest of the team, there is no harm in taking Wednesday's win for what it is.
"I'm really happy for our guys," Pikiell said. "It's been a season of ups and downs, and we got through a good one against a really good, well-coached, team in Minnesota. It was (a) good win for us today in Madison Square Garden."
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