COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Asked about what he has learned about his team a third into the Big Ten schedule and midway through his first season with the program, Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell didn’t beat around the bush.
“We’re consistently inconsistent,” he said, referencing the need for his players to play their best on a nightly basis.
There is one thing the Scarlet Knights have done on a regular basis even before he arrived in Piscataway, but it's not positive — they haven't won a Big Ten road game since joining the conference three years ago.
With former Major League baseball player Cal Ripken Jr., the king of sports consistency himself, watching from the front row of a sold-out Xfinity Center, Rutgers saw that streak extend to 23 games, suffering a 67-55 loss to No. 22 Maryland on Tuesday night.
And it was lackluster free throw shooting, an issue the Knights have struggled with all season, that plagued them. Rutgers shot 44 percent from the line, missing 14 of its 24 attempts in a game it ultimately lost by 12 points.
"Maryland’s really good," Pikiell said. "That’s a good basketball team. Well coached, good players. Thought we kind of hung around a little bit, (but our) free throw percentages wouldn’t allow it to make it more interesting."
The Knights (12-9, 1-7) played as well as it could hope against a top-25 opponent in the first half. They were toe-to-toe with the Terrapins through the first 20 minutes of the bout and the stat line was nearly identical for both teams.
Maryland (18-2, 6-1) shot 39 percent from the floor, a point higher than Rutgers’ 38 percent clip. Both made 11 shots, collected 19 rebounds, had 12 trips to the line and committed six turnovers.
The second half was a different story.
Signs of the Terps taking over on their home floor came early with two quick buckets, prompting Pikiell to take a timeout 47 seconds into the half. His team responded with a 6-0 run of its own, reducing its deficit to 3 points, but it was only a temporary solution to a seemingly inevitable avalanche.
Maryland started sinking the open shots it wasn't able to knock down in the first half, exploding for a 16-3 run to take its largest lead of the night at 54-38.
"We talk about it at halftime every game, basketball is a game of runs," said junior guard Nigel Johnson, who contributed 14 points. "We knew they were gonna go on a run just like we go on a run. That's what happens. They went on a run, then we called a timeout, got it together and tried to go on a little run of our own ... (but) we weren't capitalizing from the free throw line. Then they pulled away. Free throws is the bottom line of the story."
Sophomore guard Corey Sanders, the game’s leading scorer at the break with 13 first-half points, was shut down by Maryland in the second half, ending the game with 15.
“I feel like I played my game the whole game but the second half, the ball just wasn’t going in,” Sanders said. “That’s all. That was the story of it, the ball just wasn’t going in.”
With the defense focused on its main source of offense, the Knights had to find alternative ways to chip away at the deficit.
For a time, they were able to force themselves inside, with graduate transfer C.J. Gettys and junior forward Deshawn Freeman scoring the Knights' final five field goals.
Gettys was fouled on two of those shots but failed to convert either 3-point play opportunity.
“Trying to get the ball inside is easier said than done, they got good big guys too. Then we get to the foul line and don’t convert,” Pikiell said. “It’s a double-edged sword. If you’re not converting free throws, you could go inside all you want but you gotta take advantage of the free throws.”
Rutgers can chalk this one up in the same vein as Iowa and Seton Hall, another away game where the Knights were neck-and-neck with the opposition to start with, but let them pull away late. It continues to be different than the narrative of a year ago when games like these would be over by the first half and the difference in the final scoreline would show the massive gap in quality between the programs.
Pikiell, now owning a decent sample size as he approaches the midway point of the conference schedule, has shown he can lead his team into being competitive night in and night out in one of the most difficult leagues in the country.
The next step is still to leave arenas they raid on the road with a win.
"When we play in these tough places, we’re in every game. We would’ve been in this one too if we could make a few more free throws," Pikiell said. "We got Wisconsin (next). It doesn’t get any easier. That’s the league we play in ... you gotta play great and deserve to win and we didn’t deserve to win tonight."