WASHINGTON, D.C. — The magic was there, if only for a second.
The Rutgers men’s basketball team, less than 24 hours removed from its first Big Ten Tournament win, was riding the momentum of a monumental victory early on in its second round matchup with Northwestern.
Issa Thiam looked like Reggie Miller, living up to his sharpshooter reputation by nailing his first two attempts from three-point range. C.J. Gettys, who struggled against in the first round against Ohio State, opened the scoring a minute earlier. Three minutes in, the Scarlet Knights were up three after converting their first three shots from the floor.
But the moment would be very short lived, the madness of March replaced by the cold reality — the Wildcats are on track to make history with their best season ever and they weren’t going to let the worst team in the conference be the one to stop them.
Down 9-8 at the under-16 media timeout, Northwestern put any doubts of its first ever participation in the NCAA Tournament and any hope of Rutgers making a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament to rest shortly after.
The Wildcats exploded out of the first stoppage in play, scoring 31 straight points to put the final result out of question within 10 minutes.
Almost everything Northwestern put up during what was certainly the longest scoring run of the 2017 season seemed to go through the hoop, and whatever didn’t was swallowed up off the boards and putback.
"I was like 'wow,'" said junior guard Nigel Johnson. "When a good team gets in a zone like that, there's only so much you can do. You just gotta wait for them to start missing, because it's hard to hit like that the whole game but I feel like they almost did ... we probably could've played a little better defense, but they were hitting tough, deep shots and they were hitting shots that really hurt us."
The Wildcats converted on 12 of the 15 shots they took during the run, putting back two of the three shots they missed. Before a streak of three consecutive turnovers at the tail end of it, Northwestern scored a bucket on 10 of 11 possessions.
Meanwhile, the Knights couldn’t buy a bucket, missing 14 straight shots during the stretch from every spot on the court — from beyond the arc, in the paint and everywhere in between.
By the time Johnson, who again led the Knights in scoring with 21 points a day after leading Rutgers to victory with a game-high 21 against the Buckeyes, broke the 11 minute, 15 second drought with his first basket, the Knights were down by an unsurmountable 28 points.
The final half-hour of play was played to decide not who would win, but by how much.
In the end, when all was said and done, the Knights were on the other end of a statement win, the losers of an emphatic 83-61 blowout that punched Northwestern’s ticket to the promised land.
"Not the way I wanted to end it," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "Certainly not the defensive team that we've been most of the year. Got to give Northwestern a ton of credit. They played at an elite level today. I thought they made our defense look bad at times, even when it was good ... You could see why they're an NCAA tournament team."
Never a group to give up under Pikiell, the Knights (15-18, 3-15) continued to plug away behind the encouragement of their first-year head coach despite the monumental deficit.
They closed the first half on a 15-5 run, hitting 6 of their final 10 shots and limiting the Wildcats (22-10, 10-8) to a 1-for-8 clip in the five minutes prior to the break. Rutgers started positively out of halftime as well, with Gettys connecting with sophomore guard Corey Sanders for an alley-oop dunk.
Northwestern responded with two straight buckets, only for Rutgers to hit back with a pair of layups themselves, the latter of which converted into a three-point play by Sanders.
It would move the run up to 22-9, the Knights cutting the deficit to 15 with 17:34 to go. That’s as close as Rutgers would come for the rest of the way.
On the final night of a season with so much progress, coming off their first ever win streak against Big Ten opposition, the Knights hit their deepest valley.
"It's always a sad day," Pikiell said of the loss being the last game of the season. "I love basketball. I hate when we hang up the uniforms."
It's a tough pill to swallow — not the fact they lost but the way in which they did — and puts a damp mood on what soon may be seen as the season Rutgers turned the corner.
"I think we did a lot of big things this year for Rutgers basketball. That was the goal," Sanders said, who left the court for the final time a year ago a round earlier and with 8 less wins. "We're going to keep striving for that goal, move on and just keep progressing like I think we did this year ... whn I look back, I know we worked hard, played hard. That's the biggest thing about (this season)."
But the future, as bright as it may look, will have to wait. For now, the Knights will fight to work off the sting of the recent past.
Before Rutgers had a chance to be the protagonists of a story like Northwestern's, they were the victims of a head-on collision with a freight train headed for history.
"Tonight, we played an elite team that was playing at an elite level," Pikiell said. "I was just proud (of my players). They've (fought) all year long. No matter what the score was, they fought."