For the first time this season, the Rutgers men’s basketball team headed into a game coming off a loss, a 73-61 setback at Miami three days before it hosted Morgan State last Saturday.
It was yet to be seen how the Scarlet Knights would respond to the situation under first-year head coach Steve Pikiell. The first 12 minutes of the game suggested a Hurricane hangover, with the Knights losing their early 2-0 lead with a 6-0 run from the visiting Bears.
Rutgers struggled to pick apart Morgan State’s 2-3 zone, missing five straight shots and 8 of the 10 after graduate transfer center C.J. Gettys hit the game’s first shot.
The Knights were shooting 26 percent in the first 10 and a half minutes, getting beaten on the boards — even as the best offensive rebounding team in the country, Rutgers was down 6-2 on the offensive glass at one point — and playing a sloppy game with six turnovers.
It needed to wake up. It needed a spark. And soon enough, it found one.
A 19-6 run of eight buckets coming from six different players pushed the Knights into the lead, one they took into the half and wouldn’t drop again as they defeated Morgan State (2-6) 72-58 Saturday night.
It was Rutgers' seventh victory in eight games. This is a win total it didn’t get until the 31st and final game of last year’s regular season.
“I was nervous, obviously, about this game but … the whole team (came to play),” Pikiell said. “We were ready to play.”
The Knights (7-1) would build on its slim 31-26 halftime lead with three quick buckets from Gettys, who finished as Rutgers’ second-leading scorer with 15 points on a perfect 7-for-7 shooting night. The Columbus, Ohio, native won the slot machine by adding seven rebounds, and he also had 4 blocks, the most crucial of which backfiring against the Knights.
Gettys jumped in to help on a drive from Bears' guard Tiwian Kendley, meeting him at the rim and swatting his shot out of bounds. With Kendley, a 6-foot-5 guard, turned around walking away from the basket, the 7-foot center bumped him from behind and jawed at Kendley while staring him down. The referee saw it reason enough for a technical, handing Gettys his first, Rutgers its second and the game’s third.
“I didn't really get an explanation on either (of the technical fouls), so I wasn't really excited about (it) either," Pikiell said. "I liked to get warned, and that didn't happen. It is what it is. We gotta continue to learn and I thought that was an emotional play. I don't know what happened. I have no explanation."
Kendley would hit the first before missing the second, causing some of the loudest cheers of the night from the 5,081 fans at the RAC.
The crowd would grow quiet soon after, though, with Kendley’s free throw starting a 15-8 run to reduce the Knights' lead to 56-49 with eight minutes to go.
“He’s very capable of that," Pikiell said of Kendley, who finished with a game-high 28 points before fouling out. "Our guys were aware of that. We guarded him a little bit better in the second half. We mixed up matchups with him."
Despite the Morgan State run, junior forward Deshawn Freeman would make sure that 7 points would be as close as the Bears would get.
The Rutgers captain, who surpassed the other half of Ghost Gang to lead his team with 22 points and 12 rebounds, earned his 5th double-double in 8 games this season and had a pair of nearly identical thunderous breakaway dunks on moves he started with a defensive rebound.
The first came halfway through that Morgan State run, with him finding sophomore guard Corey Sanders with an outlet pass before getting it back at the top of the key and slamming it home.
The other came with two minutes remaining in the contest, again with him getting a rebound and throwing an outlet pass to a guard, but this time it was junior Nigel Johnson, who would throw up an alley-oop before Freeman triggered the loudest few seconds of the night at the RAC.
“Huge plays like that give the team energy and the crowd a spark,” he said.
It would push the Knights lead back to 65-53, all but guaranteeing Rutgers would remain perfect at home.
The Knights have defeated their six visitors by a margin of 82 points, defeating all but one of them by double-digits.
The success of the season was evident in the number of fans who turned out Saturday, the game garnering the highest attendance yet this year.
With them came the vocal support that Gettys heard when he was assessed his technical, the roars Freeman heard when he slammed home his dunks, the cheers junior guard Mike Williams heard upon finally hitting his first three after four attempts to tie the game at 19 and the standing ovation the whole team saw as the final horn blew, which guaranteed they earned a sixth straight home win.
"I love feeding off the fans and I love giving them what they want," Gettys said and one could guess most, if not all of his teammates would agree. "They come here to support me, so I’m going to give them the love back."
The victory guarantees Pikiell’s first year on the Banks can’t end up any worse than the nightmare that was his predecessor Eddie Jordan’s final season.
The big picture of the season is the last thing on the former Stony Brook head coach’s. With Central Connecticut State coming to town on Tuesday, it’s another quick turnaround for Rutgers, who had just one day of preparation for Saturday’s game.
Satisfied with another win, his focus has turned to the Blue Devils.
“Worked hard. Good win for us,” Pikiell said. “We’re 1-0 and that’s our motto moving forward.”