Rutgers makes early exit from Big Ten Tournament

With 6 minutes remaining in the second half and the Rutgers men’s basketball team up by 5, it looked like the Scarlet Knights (14-17, 7-13) were going to live to fight another day. But a 15-0 gut punch by Nebraska, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked Rutgers out of the Big Ten Tournament and ended its season.

But up until that point, the Knights — who were not playing their best basketball, highlighted by a season-high 22 turnovers — were ahead of a depleted Cornhuskers (17-15, 6-14) team for most of the game.

“I thought we were just grinding it out,” said head coach Steve Pikiell about his team’s slow first half. “They weren’t scoring either so we just kinda grinded it (out) but we had a lot of turnovers. The turnovers really hurt us on the offensive end.”

At halftime, the only Rutgers starter with more than 2 points was junior forward Eugene Omoruyi who had 12 points on a 4-7 shooting performance from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line. Foul trouble limited his minutes in the second half but he still finished with 16 points — the most on the team.

Redshirt freshman forward Myles Johnson, playing in his first Big Ten Tournament game, also had a standout performance. He recorded his fourth double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 rebounds, which led the team.

“I’m proud of this group,” Pikiell said on the team’s season overall. “We had 6 players out of my 11 that had never played a minute in the Big Ten … Better days ahead.”

But in the end, it was one of Nebraska’s veterans in James Palmer who stole the show, putting up 34 points on 9-19 shooting, despite only having 7 points at halftime.

His teammates, Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaiah Roby, also reached double-digit points scoring 11 and 10, respectively. Out of necessity, the three of them accounted for 45 of the Cornhuskers' 52 shot attempts with Nebraska throwing out six scholarship players and two walk-ons onto the court.

And although the Knights’ bench outscored Nebraska’s 27-7, it wasn’t enough, ultimately falling by a score of 68-61.

But the biggest statistic of the night was Rutgers’ inability to hold on to the ball. The Knights actually shot the ball well, shooting 49 percent from the field and even outrebounded the Cornhuskers 36-23, but thanks to 22 turnovers they could never get things going offensively.

Rutgers played scrappy early in the game, and it certainly showed. A season-high three Knights were fouled out — freshman guard Montez Mathis, freshman guard Caleb McConnell and Omoruyi — three key players Pikiell needed down the stretch.

“We’ve done a decent job, especially recently, not turning the ball over,” Pikiell said. “We were a turnover team earlier in the year and today was a little out of the ordinary, I’m very surprised at that number, but the turnovers never let us get into any kind of flow offensively.”

Nevertheless, next year Rutgers is only losing one player on the team in graduate student center Shaquille Doorson and after playing with each other for an entire season, coupled with some new faces, the Knights should be primed for a dramatic improvement.

Doorson finished his last game in a scarlet jersey with three rebounds in 36 minutes played. He ends his time at Rutgers, averaging 4.3 rebounds.

Like many others in the Big Ten, Nebraska head coach Tim Miles noticed the improvement the Knights have shown this season, in a year where they captured a program-best seven wins.

"I've got a lot of respect for coach Pikiell and Rutgers," Miles said. "I think he's done an excellent job building them into a formidable team in the Big Ten ..."

Pikiell's team next season will bolster a majority of this season's players, including the freshmen quartet of guard Ron Harper Jr., Johnson, Mathis and McConnell, along with Omoruyi and sophomore guard Geo Baker. 

“I’m happy that we did better than everybody else predicted. We were predicted to be 14th in the league and to finish tied for 10th — that’s big for us. We wanna show people that we’re taking a step forward,” Baker said. "But overall, I’m happy the way we grew as a unit and (we hope) to continue to build off of it.”

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

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