A win is a win, no matter what. That’s what the Rutgers men’s basketball team must be telling itself right now after squeezing out an ugly 59-56 road victory over Northwestern on Wednesday night.
But don’t tell that to head coach Steve Pikiell.
“These are the games I love. I think they’re beautiful,” the defensive-minded coach said, according to Asbury Park Press.
No matter how one looks at it, in the end the Scarlet Knights (12-12, 5-9) came away with the win over the Wildcats (12-12, 3-10) and now have sole possession of 10th place in the conference standings, meaning if the season ended today, Rutgers would have a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
The win also snapped the Knights’ three-game losing streak and brought them back up to .500 on the season. Rutgers has never been more than a game under .500 the entire season.
“I thought we just had a little more fight down the end,” said sophomore guard Geo Baker. “We wanted to come here and get this one. This was a dogfight that could have gone either way. I'm just happy that tonight we came out with the win.”
But it almost didn’t happen that way.
Up 8 with just barely more than 5 minutes remaining in the ball game, the Knights allowed Northwestern to stick around and it cut the lead to just a skinny point with 25 seconds left.
After some hectic play in the ensuing 15 seconds that resulted in two free throws for junior forward Eugene Omoruyi, he put the finishing touches on the game, sinking them both and sending Rutgers home happy.
“We wanted to play tough defense at the end without fouling,” Pikiell said, according to scarletknights.com. “They made some big shots to keep themselves right where they needed to be. We just made a few big ones down the stretch. And Eugene had the clutch free throws at the end.”
Despite the low-scoring affair, three Knights finished with double-digit points. Baker and true freshman guard Montez Mathis led the team with 12 points each while Omoruyi added 11 of his own.
But it was Baker, who went into the game struggling with his shot recently and had an all-around performance and finding his stroke in the process. He finished the night shooting 5-11 from the field and 1-3 from 3-point range, adding five assists, five rebounds and two steals.
“Guys continue to learn and get more experience, and that helps us a lot,” Baker said. “This game will help the young guys a lot to get that experience. We'll be in that situation again in the future.”
Baker and the rest of the team did have problems turning the ball over, though, coughing it up 15 times as turnovers continue to plague this young squad as it has all season.
But Rutgers more than made up for it with its rebounding ability, securing 14 more boards than the Wildcats. In fact, all but one player who got in the game had at least two rebounds.
“We have some young guys who play with heart,” Pikiell said. “Today I thought we really defended well. Our freshmen made a lot of plays down the stretch. It was a tough, hard fought game. That's what you are going to get in this league. It just comes down to a couple possessions.”
Now, the Knights will return home and switch their attention to Iowa as they get ready to host the No. 20 Hawkeyes (19-5, 8-5) in front of another sold-out crowd at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
Currently riding a three-game winning streak which started with a dominant 74-59 win over then No. 6 Michigan, Iowa has had a full week to prepare for Rutgers as it hasn’t played since Sunday.
It will be the first meeting between both sides this season as the Knights will travel to Carver-Hawkeye Arena later this season, but Rutgers is hoping for a similar outcome as last year when they defeated the Hawkeyes 80-64 inside the RAC.
And even though the Knights only have one senior on the team in graduate student center Shaquille Doorson, his younger teammates want to send him out on the right foot.
“We just want to take it one game at a time," Baker said. "We got six games left, our only senior is Shaq so he’s got six games left so we’re trying to win every game for him but we’re just gonna take it slow, one game at a time."
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