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Rutgers falls to Michigan State in first 2019-20 Big Ten matchup

In its first Big Ten matchup of the season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team suffered a 77-65 loss at No. 11 Michigan State on Sunday night. The momentum was going back and forth throughout much of the game, with four lead changes. 

In the end, though, the Spartans (6-3) pulled away, outlasting the Scarlet Knights (6-3).

Rutgers’ offensive attack was led by graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah, who scored a season-high 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Yeboah’s best game as a Knight so far marked the fifth time he reached double-digit points this year, and the 75th time in his career.

As for his teammates, they did not enjoy the same efficiency from the field. While junior guard Jacob Young contributed 12 points, he did so on just 3-of-10 shooting. With that being said, he did lead the team with six made free throws in seven attempts.

Junior guard Geo Baker struggled the most, turning in a 4-point performance on 1-of-7 shooting. This included an 0-of-3 mark from 3-point range. Although he had shooting issues, he was able to get his teammates involved, leading Rutgers with five assists.

The Knights had hope coming out of halftime down 33-28. They had a chance to capitalize on their momentum in the second half behind a 10-0 run, down just 43-42 at one point. Unfortunately for Rutgers, that would be the closest the team would get for the rest of the contest.

Michigan State's Cassius Winston was instrumental in his team’s success, leading all players with 23 points on 8-of-17 shooting. He also led the game with seven assists.

"This is a ranked team, a very experienced team," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "They have the best point guard in the country. You try and do a great job with some different coverages on him, but he's so good.”

With more ranked teams coming up on the schedule, the Knights will have to get used to facing elite players. They need to go back to the drawing board and think of new defensive strategies to contain their opponents’ top scoring threats. 

Besides Winston, the Spartans also played well as a team. They out-rebounded Rutgers 40-32, and also made 22-of-27 (81.5%) free throws. This was the most free throws made against the Knights in a game so far this year. 

“Down the stretch, they got to the free throw line and made free throws” Pikiell said. “Obviously, rebounding was a huge key. We wanted to do a great job rebounding and in transition.”

For the most part, Rutgers has been doing well on the boards. This was the first time that the Knights lost the rebound battle in the 2019-20 season. It remains to be seen whether this game was an aberration or a sign of things to come. It will be up to the team to prove it is the former.

Rutgers had a couple of familiar issues in this game, namely free throw and three-point shooting. The team shot 13-19 (68.4%) from the charity stripe, leaving several points on the floor once again. In comparison to Michigan State’s efficiency, it is an alarming indication of how far the program has to go to match up with the elite teams’ free throw shooting.

The Knights also shot just 4-of-14 (28.6%) from long range, with two of the made shots from Yeboah. This is another area it will have to heavily work on in light of the difficult schedule in the coming weeks. If Rutgers does not find its stroke from beyond the arc, the team will simply have to take more chances inside.

The Spartans' head coach Tom Izzo was impressed by the Knights’ resilient effort in the hostile environment. 

“Steve Pikiell is a guy that I have developed a good friendship with because I have so much respect for how hard his teams play. This is a pretty good Rutgers team,” he said. 

While Rutgers will appreciate the high praise, the team needs to translate its effort into wins to stay in contention. Its next chance to get back into the win column will be a home matchup on Wednesday evening against Wisconsin. 

"You have to play really good basketball on both ends of the floor, especially when you come in here," Pikiell said. "Our guys are young. We will keep getting better. I'm excited about our future."

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

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