The Rutgers men’s basketball team kicked off its season with two home wins over Bryant and Niagara, winning 73-71 and 86-39, respectively.
The Scarlet Knights (2-0) led by as many as 16 points during the Bulldogs (1-2) game, but the opponents closed the margin toward the end. Rutgers was able to hold on for the 2-point win to complete the home-opening win in front of the sold-out crowd at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC).
Sophomore guards Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr. each led the team with 11 points. Graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah also added 10 points.
Several other Knights contributed in the box score as well. Sophomore center Myles Johnson scored 9 points on 4-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds. Junior guard Jacob Young also recorded 9 points.
Rutgers made its presence felt in the paint, outscoring Bryant 42-18 and out-rebounding it 49-40.
"I'm glad we gutted out a win," said head coach Steve Pikiell. "I always give credit to the other team. They played their brains out. We had a 16-point lead — they made threes, they made shots, we didn't wrap up the game the way I liked. We're young. It's a learning experience that we can have for now to move forward and get better."
The Knights took the win, but they will have to close out games better in the future if they hope to qualify for the national tournament.
As for the Purple Eagles (0-2) game, Rutgers thoroughly dominated in all facets. The Knights out-rebounded them 38-22 and shot 59.3% from the field as opposed to Niagara’s 30.8%.
Junior guard Geo Baker paced the team with 22 points on 8-11 shooting. True freshman guard Paul Mulcahy distributed the ball well, leading both teams with six assists.
Pikiell was impressed with Yeboah, who recorded 14 points and six rebounds on 5-7 shooting.
“His maturity helps our team a great deal," Pikiell said. "He’s able to shoot, he can rebound, he can score around the basket. You’ll see some things as we keep adding some wrinkles for him.”
“He and Geo give us some really good leadership, too," Pikiell said. "Every day, they bring it. They come to practice ready to practice. We’re a young team, so having these two older guys bringing consistency really helps us."
Yeboah and Baker’s leadership and performance will be instrumental for Rutgers going forward. If they keep scoring the way they did today, the sky is the limit for the team.
The Knights turned in another solid performance in the paint, outscoring the Eagles 38-20. Rutgers will look to keep up that effectiveness down low as the season progresses.
Another encouraging sign for the Knights was their free throw shooting. The team shot 7-of-8 from the charity stripe, good for 87.5%. Rutgers' emphasis on free throws in preseason practices seems to be paying off.
“The defense. I thought we were locked in, our screen coverage was excellent," Pikiell said. "Right from the opening tip, we were ready on that end of the floor. We sent a message.”
The numbers back up his statement. The Knights forced 17 turnovers, with seven steals and six blocks. Rutgers also guarded Niagara well on the perimeter, holding it to just 26.3% shooting from 3-point range.
The Knights will look to maintain their momentum when they host Drexel on Wednesday.
“We’re on to the next one” Pikiell said. “We can’t get too high or too low, but this is a good sign for us moving forward."
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