Not this time: Rutgers closes out Minnesota at RAC, wins 6th Big Ten game of season
The Rutgers men’s basketball team made sure to complete its mission this time around against a conference foe at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), defeating Minnesota for its record sixth Big Ten win of the season last night.
The Scarlet Knights (13-14, 6-11) came out on top in a battle of runs with the Golden Gophers (17-11, 7-10) in a matchup that came down to the wire, and needed multiple go-ahead plays from sophomore guard Geo Baker to be put to bed at 68-64.
“People were worried about the bounce back stuff, but we’ve been playing really hard and getting better and better,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the game. “I’m just happy for my guys.”
With the win, Rutgers still holds the No. 10 seed in the conference and can potentially move up even higher before the start of the Big Ten Tournament next month. The Knights can fluctuate anywhere between the No. 6 and No. 10 seed and still get a first-round bye.
This might have been Rutgers’ most complete team game, as every Knight scored a point and the team won the bench battle 18-0.
“Coach said it was 10 versus 5, so we knew what we had to do,” said junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, who finished the night with 14 points and nine rebounds. “Just executing when we need to is the main part of this game.”
True freshman guard Montez Mathis started things off for both sides by scoring the opening points on a fast break layup, but Minnesota broke out on a 7-0 run from there to take an early lead.
Rutgers made its way back with 5 straight points of its own before proceeding to take its largest lead of the first half. The Knights went on an 11-0 run with buckets by true freshman guard Caleb McConnell, sophomore guard Peter Kiss, junior forward Issa Thiam and redshirt freshman forward Myles Johnson.
But again, the Gophers went on a run, scoring 11 points to retake the lead they would ride on until halftime and beyond. Minnesota headed into the locker room with a 35-28 lead.
Though there are many well-rounded players on this Rutgers squad, it was missing one of its most vocal leaders in Baker for a large part of the first half, due to some early foul trouble.
The first half theme of big runs continued into the final 20 minutes of play, as the Knights went on a 9-2 run within the first 4 minutes of the half to bring things to an even 37-37 with the Gophers. But, the runs would end from then until the end of the game.
Rutgers and Minnesota began a back-and-forth with the Gophers jumping out to a 43-40 lead with 12 minutes to play, only for the Knights to answer back and take a 48-45 lead with less than 8 minutes left.
Omoruyi — who missed the last game these two teams played in Minneapolis due to injury — was a force in the second half, scoring 8 points and grabbing four rebounds within the first 10 minutes to help Rutgers get out in front.
Graduate student center Shaquille Doorson threw in a hook shot inside the paint for 2 points to give every Knight to check onto the floor points in the game.
Both sides continued their back-and-forth battle with Minnesota taking as much as a 5-point lead with less than 5 minutes to play, but Rutgers refused to stay away, tying the game at 61-61 on a Baker layup with 1:43 on the clock.
After he blocked a shot on the defensive side of the court to get the Knights possession back, Baker hit a step-back 3-pointer to give Rutgers its first lead since 6:37 on the clock.
“Confidence comes from repetition and trust,” Baker said. “I put in the reps and my teammates and coach trust me, so it makes me feel really comfortable.”
The Gophers responded with a quick dunk from forward Daniel Oturu, who finished the night with 20 points, but they then fouled Baker on a shot and sent him to the foul line, where he hit clutch free throws to keep the Knights up by 3.
Doorson fouled Jordan Murphy on a 3-point attempt with 5 seconds left to give him three foul shots to try and tie the game up. Murphy airballed the first one, hit the second and then missed the third, with the rebound falling into McConnell’s hands and leading to another foul to send him to the line that iced the game with two free throws.
Mathis finished the night with a team-leading 18 points, followed by Baker with 13. He also added three assists, two blocks and two steals to his night, as well.
“The RAC was rocking, the environment was rocking,” Pikiell said. “That was an assist by all the fans and the students and the band and the cheerleaders. They did a great job of making (the RAC) a tough place to play.”
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