More than a month has passed since the Rutgers men’s basketball team faced Maryland in College Park.
In between that meeting and Tuesday’s contest between the sides held at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Scarlet Knights continued to struggle, with their first ever Big Ten road win the only victory in the eight games since last facing the Terrapins.
As for the visitors, they’ve seen the momentum of a program-record 20-2 start come to a screeching halt, dropping three straight and 5 of their last 7 games.
But even despite the change in trajectory for the Terrapins from the two games, it felt like nothing had changed on Tuesday night.
Rutgers hung on tight in the first half just as they did in College Park, entering the locker room down just four despite shooting 10 percent worse than the Terps and losing the rebounding battle.
And just as it went in College Park, Maryland opened a big lead in the second half, bursting out of the gates with a 10-2 run, blowing up its lead to as much as 22 en route to handily defeating the Knights 79-59 in the penultimate game of the regular season.
“We didn’t play the way I wanted to play today,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “I thought Maryland played hungry and we played one half the way I wanted to play, unfortunately. We played a top-25 team with elite guards, you better play better than that. Just very disappointed in how we played today, as far as the second half … We’re a tough team. We take pride in bouncing back no matter what the score is. And didn’t feel that tonight.”
Senior center C.J. Gettys and junior forward Deshawn Freeman single-handely kept Rutgers (13-17, 2-15) stuck to the Terrapins. The tandem known as Ghost Gang contributed 21 of the Knights’ 28 first half points, going a combined 7-for-8 from the floor and a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line.
But after Gettys pushed hit a sixth straight shot in the first possession of the second half, the pair went as cold as the rest of their teammates, scoring just two points on an abysmal 1-for-8 clip.
The Terrapins (23-7, 11-6) adjusted to Gettys following his perfect shooting first half, often double-teaming and at times triple-teaming him in the post.
“They changed how they covered him," Pikiell said of Maryland's second half adjustments. "They didn’t let him get any open looks, they double teamed him in the post and we weren’t able to get anything off that and capitalize on it.
When Gettys and Freeman were dealt with by Maryland, Rutgers had few options elsewhere.
Junior guard Mike Williams, who ended up as the game’s leading scorer with 14 points, factored 10 straight over the span of two and a half minutes, but it came with the Terps already up 17 with 10 minutes to go.
Williams, Gettys and Freeman formed the trio of double-digit scorers for the Knights. Maryland had a similar ensemble in Melo Trimble, Ivan Bender and L.G. Gill, but the difference came in the depth below them — while the Terps had seven players score at least 8 points, Rutgers had just four.
“They got good bigs. I think they have talented guys that can shoot the ball. They score. They’re a tough team,” Pikiell said of Maryland. “I think they have elite, elite guards and elite guards cause a lot of problems. They get everybody involved and they did a good job of sharing the game, getting everybody involved.”
For the Knights, who entered the game with a third straight last-place finish in the Big Ten and 14th seed in the conference tournament guaranteed, the loss is little more than a hit to their pride, but it was one Pikiell didn’t tolerate.
For the first time since he arrived on the Banks last winter, Pikiell didn’t bring out any players to the postgame availability podium with him.
“No need to bring the players out today. I don’t think you guys (the media) need to hear what they have to say,” Pikiell said. “ ... when they play hard, they’ll be sitting up here (on the podium). They can talk to you guys, they like talking anyway. I like us doing our talking on the court.”
Rutgers concludes its regular season with Senior Day on Saturday against Illinois, a potential opponent in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
It’ll serve as one last test before the Knights play for their season, with any loss in Washington D.C. sealing the end of Pikiell’s first season in Piscataway. But before heading to the Verizon Center next week, he wants to see his team respond to Tuesday’s loss like he believes they’ve done all season.
“I want them to come (on Saturday) and play Rutgers basketball,” Pikiell said. “I don’t care what the score is, I want them to play the right way and I want them to play hungry and they did for a half but that’s not good enough when you play Maryland.”