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Rutgers collapses on road against Illinois

It took overtime and nearly 200 total points, but in the end the Rutgers men’s basketball team suffered a heartbreaking 99-94 loss against Illinois inside the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois over the weekend.

Known this season for their defense, the Scarlet Knights (11-12, 4-9) gave up the most points they've given up all season, and the most since Feb. 3, 2016, when they gave up 110 in a triple overtime game against the very same Fighting Illini (9-15, 5-8) inside the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).

“Great game. Great environment. Great if you weren't coaching the game,” said head coach Steve Pikiell, according to scarletknights.com. “They play really hard. I have to give Illinois credit. They made a few more plays. I love the way my team fought. It was a great college basketball game, we just came up a little bit short.”

In fact, it seems Pikiell has yet to figure out how to stop Illinois. The two teams met last season in Champaign as well, with the Illini scoring 91 points in what was a blowout win.

This time, though, Rutgers competed the entire game. 

After going to the locker rooms at halftime up 3 points thanks to an 18-33 shooting performance, the Knights were down by as many as 7 points in the second, but mounted a comeback to tie the game.

Then, with 10 seconds left and down 2 points, true freshman guard Ron Harper Jr. drove to the rim and made a layup to even things back up at 86 and force overtime.

“I thought we were in attack mode all day. We made a lot of tough shots. They did too," Pikiell said. "This game just came down to a couple of tough ones. They made a couple down the stretch and we didn't."

But before all of that, it was true freshman guard Caleb McConnell who stole the show for Rutgers with his best performance of the season. McConnell set career highs in minutes (30), points (25), rebounds (nine), field goals made (8), free throws made (6) and 3-point field goals made (3). He did all of that while coming off the bench.

Despite McConnell’s best efforts, it was still just the second-best performance of the day, as Illinois’ Giorgi Bezhanishvili set an Illini freshman program record with 35 points on 14-18 shooting. 

“(Bezhanishvili) was good, obviously, a career night. We tried a lot of different guys on him too," Pikiell said. "I like their whole team. They have a lot of different options. I thought we did a good job on their guards."

Bezhanishvili carried the team, and in overtime he continued his dominance in the paint, going 2-2 from the field and 2-2 from the line.

Meanwhile, the Knights, who outshot Illinois 13-5 in overtime, couldn’t make the shots count, going 4-13 in the final 5 minutes.

Despite overtime offensive difficulties, Rutgers had four players score in double-digits — three of which were freshmen. Along with McConnell, true freshman guard Montez Mathis scored 17 points in a game-high 41 minutes while Harper Jr. had 15 points. Sophomore guard Geo Baker also had 15 from the field.

“I thought the game was up and down,” Pikiell said. "They played a few good segments, we played a few good segments. They play very different than anyone else. You really have to take every one and make the most of it.”

Notably absent from the offensive side of the ball for most of the game was junior forward Eugene Omoruyi — the team’s leading scorer. Omoruyi finished with 6 points on 3-6 shooting, but helped out in other ways, dishing out a team-high five assists and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds.

Overall, the Knights shot 50.7 percent from the field — their best shooting performance in a conference game this season. Nevertheless, they still struggled from behind the arc, shooting 30.4 percent, and from the charity stripe, going 13-21. 

Rutgers will now have to wait until Wednesday to get its fifth conference when it travels to Evanston, Illinois to face Northwestern. There, the Knights will look to avenge their home loss to the Wildcats last month.

“I give a lot of credit to Pikiell and his staff for the team they've put together,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood. “They're tough and they're physical. Their young guards are really talented. You know when you play Rutgers that it's going to be a tough, physical game.”

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

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