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Rutgers secures decisive victory over Illinois at home

The Rutgers men’s basketball team defended home court once again on Saturday afternoon, defeating Illinois 72-57. The Scarlet Knights (18-8, 9-6) are now 17-0 at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), the best home record in the nation.

Unlike many of its recent games, Rutgers did not start slow. The back-and-forth first half ended with the Knights leading 34-32 at the break. Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. led the way at halftime with 15 points while shooting 3 of 3 from long range. His scoring was vital to Rutgers' success at the start of the contest and helped his team avoid an early deficit against the No. 22 Fighting Illini (16-9, 8-6).

Harper Jr. didn’t stop scoring after halftime, either. He finished with 27 points on 11 of 14 shooting from the field and a career-best 5 of 5 mark from three-point range. He also tallied six rebounds, one assist and two steals. He picked the right time to have one of his best games of the season, as the Knights needed to avoid a losing streak after falling to Ohio State on Wednesday.

Harper Jr. had made just 3 of his last 18 three-point attempts coming into the game, making his scoring outburst all the more valuable for his confidence. 

“It was Ron’s night,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “We got him the basketball and I think that’s what makes us a good team. It’s been different players' nights ... That’s a sign of a good team. We’re living in a 'selfie' world and we’re playing a team sport. When they embrace someone else's success, I think it’s great.”

Speaking of the team as a whole, the decisive victory was arguably Rutgers’ most complete game of the season. It spent 29 minutes of the game in the lead and outscored Illinois 38-25 in the second half. 

The Knights outperformed the Fighting Illini in approximately every area. They shot 49.1 percent from the floor, while holding Illinois to just 31.1 percent. Rutgers, which has often been inefficient from long range this season, also made 7 of its 15 three-point attempts (46.7 percent), compared to 8 of 28 (28.6 percent) made for the Fighting Illini. After getting shredded from long range by the Buckeyes (17-8, 7-7) and Northwestern, the Knights showed that they could lock up on defense and assert their physicality against Illinois. 

“I just thought we were locked into the whole game plan,” Pikiell said. “I thought we did a real good job of closing out ... (we had) only a day really to prepare. I liked the way our guys were locked in on the details ... Obviously they beat us on the backboards last time ... And they beat us on the free throw line. To have those categories even for us was a real good thing.”

Pikiell was referencing Rutgers' 54-51 loss on Jan. 11, in Champaign, Illinois. That day the Fighting Illini out-rebounded the Knights 48-42, while also shooting 16 of 19 from the charity stripe. Rutgers, on the other hand, converted just 3 of 8 attempts from the line.

Saturday was a different story. In the rematch, the Knights tied Illinois in total rebounds (37-37) but outscored it in the paint (28-18). They were also more efficient from the free throw line, shooting 11 of 12 (91.7 percent) compared to 11 of 15 (73.3 percent) for the Fighting Illini.

Another significant difference was that Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu (15.8 points per game), one of the team’s top players, was out due to a leg injury. It especially showed on offense, as the team lacked a consistent threat from the perimeter, putting it at a disadvantage it ultimately could not overcome at a loud and sold-out RAC.

“It’s one of the loudest buildings we’ve seen all year,” said the Fighting Illini's head coach Brad Underwood. “They have a good basketball team ... (I give) Rutgers’ defense a lot of credit.”

The win puts Rutgers in fourth place in the Big Ten standings. It also marks the team’s ninth conference win of the season, its most in conference play since going 9-9 in the Big East in 1998-99. The Knights also now have three wins against ranked opponents, their most in a season since 2001-02. All three of the victories have been by double-digits, the first time they have done that in program history.

Rutgers will stay home to host Michigan on Wednesday in another sold-out contest at the RAC. 

"Proud. Great environment,” Pikiell said. “It was a really good college basketball game ... The RAC was rocking. We're very thankful to everyone that showed up, made it a tough, great and exciting environment."

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

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