By AMAN KIDWAI
WASHINGTON D.C. — Rutgers Basketball has not been good for a very long time, but all indications are that’s eventually going to change.
Under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights (15-17) have more than doubled their win total from last season and now have their first winning streak in conference play after beating Ohio State, 66-57, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at the Verizon Center.
“We learned how to compete this year,” Pikiell said. “We couldn’t close out some games. But it’s a process when you’re building a program. It takes steps.”
Rutgers advances to face No. 6 Northwestern (21-10) in Thursday’s nightcap. After helping the program get its first Big Ten Tournament win and finally stringing together consecutive conference victories, guard Corey Sanders believes this could be a turning point.
“To come out the way we did and do something that nobody thought we could do besides our fans… we had faith the whole time,” he said. “I feel like we could do the same thing tomorrow against Northwestern.”
“Our motto going into the game was 40 minutes gets you 40 more minutes.”– RutgersMBB’s CJ Gettys https://t.co/UoGOYtWsne — Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) March 9, 2017
The Buckeyes hitting just 15 of 28 free-throw attempts (53.6 percent) Wednesday evening didn’t help their cause, but nobody can call Rutgers’ win a fluke. Ohio State (17-15) jumped out to an early 11-3 lead out of the gate but the Scarlet Knights evened it up and then played a competitive game the rest of the way.
“We’re challenged offensively,” Pikiell quipped. “So we do get behind in games, but we kept fighting.”
Down the stretch, a Rutgers team which experienced numerous close losses during the season broke away late as it held Ohio State without a field goal for the final 5:43.
“All the close games we lost in the last 2-3 minutes, that was a learning experience,” Sanders said.
Pikiell isn’t doing anything fancy in Piscataway—at least not to anyone familiar with his 11-season stint at Stony Brook. His teams are focused on defense and maintaining possession. Against Ohio State, Rutgers dominated the glass, 47-31, including 19 offensive rebounds which led to 22 second-chance points. They also held the Buckeyes to just 5-of-21 shooting (23.8%) in the second half.
“Before we even picked up a basketball over the summer, Coach Pikiell was drilling defense,” junior Nigel Johnson shared. The guard from nearby Ashburn, Va., finished with 21 points to lead the team as he notched his fourth 20-point game of the season.
Sanders, the Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer on the season, was not having his best offensive performance but the sophomore point guard moved the ball to people who were and helped protect the perimeter. Ohio State hit just 6-of-20 (30 percent) three-point attempts.
“(We’ve) been holding teams to scores that they’re not used to getting,” he said. “We try to hold teams 10 points under their average.”
Ohio State came into the game averaging 73 points per game. Mission accomplished.
The future is bright for the Rutgers basketball program. Recruiting is on the rise, more money is flowing in than ever before thanks to the Big Ten, a promising coaching staff is in place, and most key contributors have eligibility remaining after this year.
In the regular season, Ohio State defeated Rutgers by six points in Columbus. Northwestern only beat them by four in Evanston in their second meeting of the season. Anything can happen in the third, especially on a neutral court.
“We definitely know what they got,” Sanders said. “They’re not going to surprise us with anything… There’s a saying, ‘It’s hard to beat a good team three times.’”
Photo: Rutgers Basketball