The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered its matchup with Hartford with a 5-0 record, its best start to a season in over a decade, without having to break through much adversity.
Each of the first five wins came by double-digit margins and the sixth was expected to come with similar ease, the visiting Hawks projected to finish near the bottom of the American East conference Steve Pikiell coached in for 11 years prior to coming to Piscataway to become the head coach of the Scarlet Knights.
Hartford, apparently, didn’t get the memo. Shooting at an unconscious 75 percent clip the Golden State Warriors would be envious of in the opening half of the second period, the Hawks jumped to a 13-point lead with five minutes remaining in the contest.
Rutgers faced its first real test a game earlier than it may have expected, with its first Power Five conference opponent Miami looming in the distance.
It passed with flying colors.
The Knights concluded the game on a 20-5 run, with graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys hitting a game-winning putback layup with 7 seconds remaining to hand them a 77-75 win in front of 4,056 at the Rutgers Athletics Center Friday afternoon.
“Today was awesome. At the end, the place was really rocking,” Pikiell said. “It was a great college game, I thought.”
Hartford took over from beyond-the-arc in the second half after a back-and-forth opening 20 minutes ended with both teams knotted up at 27.
The Hawks took control of the game with a 19-7 run to take a 56-48 lead with 10 minutes remaining. The run fell in the middle of a streak of 10 consecutively made field goals from the Hawks, six of which from downtown.
It felt like everything Hartford put up was going through the hoop regardless of how well Rutgers played on defense. But the Knights were able to push back, holding the Hawks to 5 points in the final five minutes of the second half after they scored 43 in the first 15 of the frame.
“Stick to what we’ve been taught all year,” said junior guard Nigel Johnson of what Rutgers did to stop Hartford. “We knew they was having a good shooting game, they was hot, but we knew they wasn’t going to be hot for the whole game. Nobody can sit there for 40 minutes straight and not miss a shot.”
As the Hawks cooled down, Rutgers heated up, hitting 8 of its last 11 attempts from the floor. Johnson pushed the Knights through the final charge to complete the comeback, hitting a layup to tie the game at 73 with just more than a minute remaining. It concluded a sequence of a steal, layup, block, layup for the Kansas State transfer.
It was fitting that he was the last player to hold the ball in his hands, receiving a pass from sophomore guard Corey Sanders after his steal with three seconds remaining sealed the win.
With that, the comeback was confirmed and Rutgers perfect record remained intact. The win pushed the Knights to 6-0, a record it hasn’t held since 1975-76, known to most as the greatest season in program history.
While Rutgers is far from repeating a year where it reached its first and only Final Four after an undefeated regular season, the win was another step in the right direction. Mix in the way in which the Knights clinched the win, and its easy to see why Johnson threw the ball up after getting the pass from Sanders, watching it fall back down onto the court with the buzzer sounding and him celebrating with his teammates by the bench.
“We was down a lot of the second half ... so when we took the lead at the end and there was about five seconds left, Corey got the steal, threw it to me, I just knew we had it,” Johnson said. “I just threw the ball up just tryna let out all my emotions I had stored in me.”