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Rutgers' comeback effort not enough to defeat Ohio State

The Rutgers men’s basketball team suffered a 72-66 defeat at Ohio State last night despite a valiant comeback effort in the second half. The Scarlet Knights (17-8, 8-6) fell behind 45-30 in the first half,  in large part due to 7 three-pointers by the Buckeyes (16-8, 6-7). While Rutgers went on a run in the second half, it was not enough to erase the deficit.

Knights head coach Steve Pikiell has repeatedly said all season how tough the Big Ten is, especially on the road. At one point, it looked like that difficulty would be too much for Rutgers to handle. Down by 20 in the second half, the Knights easily could have accepted the loss and gone on autopilot for the rest of the contest.

With that being said, Rutgers has made it clear all season that it will not go down without a fight. The Knights went on a 12-4 run behind scoring boosts from junior guards Jacob Young and Geo Baker. They finished the game making 8 of their last 9 field goals, including a contested, deep three-pointer by Baker that made the score 69-66. Unfortunately for Rutgers though, it could not duplicate its dramatic come-from-behind victory against Northwestern.

“Steve’s a terrific coach,” said Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann after the game. “They’re not ever going to quit. They don’t quit. I’ve watched almost every one of their games, they don’t ever quit. It’s really a credit to him.”

Holtmann’s praise is accurate, as 6 of the Knights’ 8 losses this year have been by a single-digit margin. Even though they have not been getting the results they want on the road, they have been making their opponents work for it every game.

"We always fight," Pikiell said. "Credit to Ohio State, they are a good team. We have to play 40 great minutes on the road. We didn't tonight overall."

The first half saw the Buckeyes shoot 51.7 percent from the floor, with Rutgers shooting 42.9 percent. The Knights struggled with perimeter defense once again, especially against Kaleb Wesson. Wesson finished with 16 points, shooting a perfect 3-of-3 from long range in the process.

The biggest reason for Rutgers’ second half surge was the bench players stepping up. The Knights’ top three scorers for the night were Young (17 points), Baker (13 points) and true freshman guard Paul Mulcahy (12 points) — none of whom were in the starting lineup. It was Mulcahy’s first time scoring in double figures against a Big Ten squad.

"Our bench played with great energy," Pikiell said. "They gave us a jolt. They were active. They did a great job with their effort and energy to help us claw back into the game."

The bench players leading in scoring speaks to the depth that Rutgers has, but it also means that some starters did not pull their weight. Sophomore center Myles Johnson especially struggled, as the foul trouble threw off his rhythm the whole game. He ended the night with just 2 points on 1 of 4 shooting from the field, three rebounds, one block and one steal.

In order for the Knights to pick up road wins down the stretch, they will need Johnson to revert back to his early-season form, when he was dominating inside on both ends of the floor.

Sophomore guard Caleb McConnell also had a day to forget. He scored 0 points on 0 of 3 shooting. With McConnell struggling, Pikiell decided to give the three aforementioned guards off the bench more minutes in his place. There could be a slight shakeup in the starting lineup going forward, especially with Baker playing more like his old self.

Luckily for Rutgers, it will come back home on Saturday, where it is a nation’s-best 16-0. The team will face No. 22 Illinois at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

"It's a difficult league with the best players and best coaches," Pikiell said. "It comes down to the little things. We didn't have a lot of prep days to get ready for this game. You have to play good basketball in this league cause every game is a war."

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

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