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McConnell scores career high in Rutgers' loss at Illinois

Knights sit at No. 10 in Big Ten standings with month of play left

The Rutgers men’s basketball finds itself right back in the same spot it found itself in three games ago, albeit with a different record. After suffering an overtime loss to Illinois on the road, the team is now riding another three-game losing streak.

The Scarlet Knights (11-12, 4-9) are back under .500 for the first time since Jan. 18, when they lost to Northwestern to cap off the team’s last three straight loss mark. A players-only meeting after the loss sparked what became the first three-game win streak in Big Ten play since joining the conference, but it seems that spark has cooled down.

The Fighting Illini (9-15, 5-8) entered Saturday’s game on an extremely high note, having come off an upset victory over then No. 9 Michigan State. They took that momentum and put it into a 99-95 overtime victory over Rutgers at home to pass the Knights in the conference standings with about a month left of regular season play remaining.

Here are three takeaways from last weekend’s matchup in Champaign, Illinois:

Heartfelt condolences

Just hours before Saturday’s game, head coach Steve Pikiell’s mother passed away — a heartfelt condolences to Pikiell and his family — but he still coached Rutgers against Illinois. 

Pikiell has been on the sidelines of college basketball for more than 25 years and has been a head coach for nearly 15. After 11 years at Stony Brook, Pikiell became the head coach of the Knights program and has led the team to new heights in the Big Ten. 

Rutgers won three straight conference wins for the first time in 15 years this season, have the most Big Ten wins this season since joining the conference in 2014 and have secured upset wins over ranked opponents in both of the last two seasons. 

With the help of the freshmen that Pikiell helped bring into the program scoring 65 points on Saturday, the Knights scored 90 points in a game for the third time this season — marking the first time in 13 years the program has reached that accomplishment.

“I’ve been a Steve Pikiell fan since the day he came into the league. I really appreciate where this program is going. It’s good for the Big Ten ... He's building something here,” said the Spartans' Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo after Rutgers hosted his team in November.

Spark off the bench

For the second time in three games, true freshman point guard Caleb McConnell posted a career high in points for the Knights. After tying his previous mark of 14 in the loss to Ohio State 10 days ago, McConnell exploded off the bench for 25 points to lead the team in scoring against the Illini. 

McConnell shot a very efficient 8-10 and was 3-4 from the 3-point line along with 6-8 from the charity stripe. The 6-foot-6-inch guard also grabbed the second-most rebounds in the game with nine, just behind junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, who had 11. McConnell seems to stay quiet throughout most games and doesn’t tend to shoot much, but on days when he does, it looks like he pulls through.

Conference standings update

Since the win against Indiana put Rutgers up to No. 8 in the Big Ten, the Knights have lost three straight games against conference opponents and now find themselves, again, outside the top 10, with a 4-9 Big Ten. 

Rutgers is actually tied with the Hoosiers, but since they hold a worse overall record, the Knights sit at No. 11 while Indiana is No. 10. 

With the Wildcats just half a game back of Rutgers in the standings at 3-9, Wednesday night’s game in Evanston, Illinois can have big conference tournament implications down the line.

If the Knights want to secure a top-10 spot and a bye from the first round of play, they realistically need to win two more games to reach six wins — Northwestern was the No. 10 seed last season and went 6-12 in conference play. The final weeks of the season are underway and will surely bring excitement for players, coaches and fans alike.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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