NEW YORK, N.Y. — It took some time to get acclimated to an unfamiliar court, but once the Rutgers men’s basketball team settled down at Madison Square Garden, it looked like the New York Knicks that usually host games there on Sunday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights (11-1) dominated Fordham (5-7) in most statistical categories at the World’s Most Famous Arena — on the backboards (51-22), in the paint (42-24), from the field (49-32 percent) — en route to a 68-53 win.
They overcame a slow start in each half, first recovering from an early deficit before holding back a relentless Rams team long enough to earn the victory, holding them to a season-low point total in the process.
“They play a unique style, well-coached, a lot of players back from a team that had a great year last year, so a different kind of game for us,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “I loved our backboard and our work on the backboard. So good win for us.”
On a night where freshman forward Eugene Omeruyi and junior college transfer Candido Sa earned career-high rebounding numbers with 8 and 9 boards respectively, it was usual suspect junior forward Deshawn Freeman who led the Knights with 11 to earn his 9th double-double in 12 games this season.
Of the 11 rebounds he gathered, five were on the offensive glass, where Rutgers more than doubled Fordham's output. The 16-7 advantage on the offensive glass led to an even more lopsided 13-1 advantage in second-chance points for the Knights.
"That’s something we work on and pride ourselves on," said graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys on rebounding. "(We) made a big step from last year and to be able to crack somebody on the boards like that is going to help you win the game and I think we did just that."
Omeruyi played a season-high 15 minutes in the contest in place of true freshman Issa Thiam, who missed the first start of his career due to an illness that forced him to miss practice Saturday, according to Pikiell, and allowed him to play just three minutes Sunday.
The Canadian didn't factor any points but his defensive presence was key in an 11-minute stretch in which Rutgers outscored Fordham 22-8 to close the first half. He was 1 of 10 Knights to participate against the Rams, with freshman forward Matt Bullock and junior forward Ibrahima Diallo the only scholarship players to spend the whole day on the bench.
"I thought Eugene came in and did a real good job in Issa’s absence today," Pikiell said. "Needed everybody today. Needed our whole bench ... we have continued to base this on 'next guy up.'"
The game was won in that 11-minute stretch, which followed an opening as sloppy as the energy in the crowd was low.
In front of a crowd of 8,002 with the energy of a group less than half that size, Rutgers surrendered 3 of its 8 first-half turnovers in the first three minutes, twice stepping out of bounds and once throwing a lazy pass that slipped out of bounds.
The Knights would finish with 17, 10 of which being forced, an unsurprising considering the Rams had the second highest forced steal percentage in the country according to KenPom heading into the game.
But Fordham wouldn’t take advantage early when it had the lead and the Knights capitalized. Rutgers took the lead nine minutes into the contest and never looked back, going on a 22-8 run to close the first half with a 14 point lead.
Junior guard Mike Williams started the surge and led the Knights through most of the contest, scoring the first five points of both the run and his game-high total of 19 on his homecoming to the Big Apple.
“I've got the feel of the court already," Williams, a Brooklyn native and only Knight with experience of playing at the Garden heading into the contest, said. "It was fun to have my family in the crowd, my friends in the crowd and it was just great to play in the Garden again."
Just as he dug Rutgers out of the initial 8-2 hole, he prevented Fordham from bringing itself out of the nearly insurmountable deficit it faced at the half.
Joseph Chartouny prevented the Rams’ from getting doubled up at the break by nailing their first three-pointer on the 13th attempt from deep. Entering the game 23rd in the country in assists per game, the sophomore guard kickstarted an 8-0 run to open the second half with five points in its first 30 seconds.
It included another shot from downtown, an area the Rams improved in drastically to start the second half — Fordham hit 5 in 6 attempts after missing its first 12 from beyond the arc.
One of the deep shots came directly after Chartouny’s second to top off the Rams’ 8-0 lead. It was ended by a pair of layups from Williams and fellow junior guard Nigel Johnson.
From there, the teams spent five minutes exchanging baskets, with five Fordham buckets receiving as many responses from Rutgers. It would lead to the closest the Rams came to coming back all afternoon, their deficit cut to seven with nine minutes to go.
But just as in the first half, the Knights would string some baskets together and hold Fordham scoreless over four minutes to rebuild its double-digit lead and run away with the win, their 11th in 12 games.
"Just proud these guys jumped on board," Pikiell said when asked about the quick turnaround the team has saw in the first two months of his first season on the job. "Just happy for these guys to get a taste of it. You defend and you rebound, good things happen and they’ve embraced that. But I don’t really think too much about it. (We think about going) 1-0 and that’s what we try to do and we really try to do that."
Sunday's result and Rutgers' strong start sets up the most anticipated matchup the program has seen in years — a meeting with in-state rivals Seton Hall next Friday at the Prudential Center.
The Pirates have dominated the Knights for the past three years and they don't plan on stopping this season.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Delgado on an improved Rutgers team: "They can be No. 1 in the country and we're still gonna beat them."</p>— The Setonian Sports (@SetonianSports) <a href="https://twitter.com/SetonianSports/status/810300933951340544">December 18, 2016</a></blockquote>
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The reigning Big East Tournament champions are easily the hardest challenge Pikiell will have seen so far — Rutgers has the second weakest strength-of-schedule of all 351 Division I programs, according to KenPom and the Pirates rank in the top 50 of the analytics website.
All signs point to a fourth-straight win for Seton Hall over Rutgers. But then again, not many signs pointed to an 11-1 start for the Knights.
"We're very familiar with how good they are and we look forward to playing them on Friday," Pikiell said. "It's a big challenge for us but we like challenges. I like challenges as a coach. We'll see what happens."