After flailing out against No. 10 Michigan State, Rutgers returns home to face Minnesota

Despite being up by as many as 11 points in the second half, the Rutgers men’s basketball team was unable to keep the momentum on its side, as it eventually flailed out and let No. 10 Michigan State go on a 46-24 run all the way to the end of the game to come out victorious in East Lansing, Michigan.

The Scarlet Knights (12-14, 5-11) looked hungry and motivated in the first half after coming off last weekend’s heartbreaking loss to No. 21 Iowa that came down to the final possession. They ran out to a 7-point lead at the halftime break after the Spartans (22-5, 13-3) turned the ball over eight times and sophomore guard Geo Baker led all scorers with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting.

Rutgers still held onto a lead of the same margin with 15 minutes remaining after junior forward Shaq Carter laid in 2 of his 4 points for the Knights. But, Michigan State responded in a big way.

The Spartans' Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman combined for 34 points in the second half while holding down the fort on their defensive assignments of Rutgers’ two best players in Baker (only 4 points in the second half) and junior forward Eugene Omoruyi (finished with 9 points and eight rebounds — which is somewhat of a low for him).

Overall, Michigan State crushed the Knights on the boards, outrebounding them 45-31 for the game. In just one sequence alone, the Spartans got four straight offensive rebounds after missed shots, and the final one turned into a 3-pointer to tie the game.

True freshman forward Ron Harper Jr. joined Baker as the only other player in double figures with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, but that wasn’t enough, as Rutgers fell for the fifth time in February.

Omoruyi (13.6 points) has taken over Baker (13.2 points) as the team’s leading scorer per game — though he has played in three fewer games — while also leading the team in rebounds per game with 7.6.

True freshman guard Montez Mathis and Harper Jr. follow suit, averaging 8.6 points and 7 points per game respectively. 

Michigan State is enjoying its seat at the top of the Big Ten standings at the moment and hope to keep it, whereas the Knights are still in a dogfight for the chance to receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament that begins next month.

Rutgers has played some good basketball this month at points, but still finds itself 1-5 over the last six games due to both strength of schedule and an inability to have complete games from start to finish. Head coach Steve Pikiell continues to implement the “1-0” mantra to the team, as most coaches would, but the team’s record still stands where it is.

The Knights still have a hold on the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten, good enough for a first round bye if the season was over today, but instead the team still has four games left on its schedule.

The first of those four games will be this Sunday against Minnesota in the second-to-last game at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) this season. The Golden Gophers (17-9, 7-8) enter that game after a 69-60 loss to No. 7 Michigan last night at the Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

The month of February hasn’t been kind to Minnesota either, as it lost four straight games — all in conference — before ending its skid last weekend with a win over Indiana.

The Gophers are currently the No. 8 seed in the conference, but have an identical overall record as Ohio State, which sits right above it at No. 7. 

Though they are both 7-8 right now, those records will fluctuate one way or another, so Rutgers will likely need to grab at least two of the final four games this season if it hopes to get that highly coveted first round. 

All four games seem winnable, with the Knights getting to host Minnesota and Penn State — they can be scary at the RAC — and facing the Hawkeyes (who they most recently almost defeated) and the Hoosiers (who they did defeat earlier this year). 

Crunch time has officially arrived for Rutgers in one of its most competitive seasons in recent years. After seeing the Knights make it all the way to the third round as a No. 14 seed — and nearly win again — last season, this year’s tournament is set to be another wild ride.

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

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