Steve Pikiell is not one to waver and never one to hit the panic button.
Even in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, the head coach of the Rutgers men’s basketball team remained optimistic, kept to his belief that the team was getting better and that it was getting closer to where he wanted it to be with each passing day.
All the Scarlet Knights needed to get their first Big Ten win of the season, he said, was to play a full 40 minutes. Hot starts were negated by poor play out of the locker room and down the stretch. The physical fatigue of Pikiell’s intense brand of defense and the mental fatigue of struggling on the offensive end would take their toll on the team in the first and final minutes of second half.
Saturday’s matchup against Nebraska looked to be following that script to the T.
Rutgers saw a 10-point halftime lead evaporate within a matter of minutes in the second half, the visitors waking up from the first half to hit their first four shots of the second. It looked like another game the Knights had in the bag, one they seemed in perfect position to win, was going to slip away.
But Corey Sanders wasn’t letting this one get away.
The sophomore guard took over in the second half, carrying his team through the final 20 minutes with 18 of his season-high 25 points, hitting his final shot with a second remaining on the clock when he put back his own miss to give Rutgers a 65-64 lead.
It would be enough to snap the skid and hand the Knights their first Big Ten win of the season and the first of Pikiell’s career at the helm on the Banks.
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"I was just able to get in a groove, come out and have my teammates set good picks for me,” Sanders said after his first game-winner. “I think the defense paid off a lot, got a couple buckets in transition. It just feels good to get a 'W.'"
The bucket concluded a 6-0 run for Rutgers (12-8, 1-6) in the final 90 seconds, the knockout punch in a back-and-forth full of exchanged blows where the lead swapped hands eight times in the last 13 minutes.
It was at that time that Nebraska (9-10, 3-4) completed an 18-7 run to retake the lead. The Cornhuskers hit their first four attempts in the second half, a complete turn from the 10 minutes before heading into halftime.
Another installment of the hard-nosed defense the Knights have played under Pikiell kept the visitors to a 22 percent clip in the opening 20 minutes and forced them to go the final 10:25 minutes of the first half without hitting a shot, missing 17 straight in the span.
A new wrinkle was added into the defense by Pikiell, whose team at times seemed to be playing a soft press, attacking the Huskers with occasional double-teams in addition to the tight man-to-man it always plays, helped keep Nebraska at bay.
But the defense wasn’t there out of the gate in the second half. It took the Huskers eight minutes to surpass their first half output, taking a 44-42 lead into the under-12 timeout.
A 7-0 run after junior guard Mike Williams hit a pair of free throws out of the break in play gave Nebraska its biggest lead of the afternoon.
It was at moments like this that opponents began to pull away from Rutgers in its previous losses this season, where the defense would slow and the offense became stagnant.
It wouldn’t happen Saturday — Nigel Johnson wouldn’t let it.
A day removed from his birthday, the junior guard gave the Knights a gift when he hit his third and final three-pointer, kickstarting a 7-0 run that tied the game at 53.
“We knew at halftime, we talked about it, we knew they were going to come out hot and they were going to try to come back in the game,” he said. “They were going to make a run … so we just had to come up with one of our own. Getting a three definitely gave us a spark and we just took over from there.”
It’s no coincidence that Rutgers’ first Big Ten win came on the same day it had one of its lowest turnover count (13) — with only two deemed pick-sixes by Pikiell — and its best free throw shooting night in conference play.
Shooting at a 70 percent clip from the stripe, the biggest of the 14 free throws they made were the final two. Junior forward Deshawn Freeman stepped up and hit both of his attempts with 40 seconds to go, setting up a defensive possession ending with a steal from Sanders before the sophomore hit the game-winner.
“I had a bad free throw shooting game against Indiana, and I knew I was better than that,” Freeman said. “I took time outside of practice shooting free throws to be able to make those.”
The Knights' need to claw their way out of a pair of late deficits shows that this was not the complete 40 minute performance Pikiell had been searching for, but the difference came in when Rutgers turned on the jets.
In reality, those perfect games from start to finish are few and far between, even more so with the level of competition the Knights are facing night in and night out in the Big Ten.
This game served as a lesson for Rutgers, one it could take into the remainder of the season — it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
But Pikiell isn't getting too excited over the historic win.
"We've been up and we've been down, but I don't think we get too caught up in it," he said. "I just want our guys to stay the course. This is a tough journey and a great league. They stayed the course and banded together. We have to continue to grow in that area. Teams like this that are really good offensively are always going to make runs … They threw punches and we came right back and threw punches and that's what I want this team to do. I want us to get up off the mat and they did that."