It was another productive day at the office for the Rutgers men’s basketball team on Sunday. With the 64-56 defeat against Minnesota at the sold-out Rutgers Athletic Center, the Scarlet Knights (14-4, 5-2) improved to a 13-0 record at the RAC, their best start at home in program history.
The win marks the first time Rutgers has been three games over .500 in conference play since the 1998-99 season. It was also head coach Steve Pikiell’s 250th win as the Knights' head coach.
Most importantly, the win helped Rutgers secure an AP Top 25 ranking for the first time since 1979, clocking in at No. 24. To illustrate how long it has been, Big Ten analyst Mike Hall tweeted, “The last time the Scarlet Knights were ranked: I was not alive ... ESPN did not exist, only one Star Wars film had been released.”
The team will look to keep up its historical success as it looks to qualify for its first NCAA tournament since 1991.
In regards to his 250th win, Pikiell kept it simple: “Good players. I’m blessed. Good coaches. That’s it.”
The Knights had a full team effort against the Golden Gophers (10-8, 4-4), with four players scoring double-digit points. Sophomore guard Caleb McConnell recorded his first career double-double, with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Junior guard Jacob Young, as well as sophomore guards Montez Mathis and Ron Harper Jr., each tied for the team lead with 11 points.
Although Rutgers got the win in the end, the entirety of the game was not smooth sailing. The team fell behind early 10-2, which was unfamiliar territory considering its recent dominance. Pikiell called a timeout to let the team regroup. After the timeout, Mathis propelled the Knights back into the game with a scoring outburst, recording the team’s first 11 points. From there, Rutgers never looked back.
While the Knights maintained the lead the rest of the way, Minnesota did not go down lightly. They reduced the deficit to 7 points three different times in the second half, largely thanks to center Daniel Oturu and guard Payton Willis’s scoring outputs (19 and 12 points, respectively). Despite their efforts, they could not complete the comeback. Junior guard Geo Baker scored a corner three-pointer late in the game to return the lead to double digits.
Rutgers continued its season-long trend of dominating the boards, exemplified by its 45-35 rebounding advantage. The Knights also scored 18 second-chance points off of 20 offensive rebounds.
“We grinded in the first half,” Pikiell said. “These guys stuck their noses in there and got some huge put-backs, some second shots and it's everybody – everybody chips in when you look at that column. That's how we have to rebound too. (We) can't just depend on one guy. When you're playing good teams, you better be doing some things well and that's something we did well.”
The box score reflects his comments. McConnell, sophomore center Myles Johnson (10 rebounds) and freshman guard Paul Mulcahy (nine rebounds) each dominated the boards for Rutgers, with Mulcahy’s total a career high.
The Knights ended the contest with seven turnovers, their lowest total in a game this season. If Rutgers can keep up the team effort in rebounding, as well as taking care of the ball, the sky is the limit.
The Knights will look to keep up their momentum on the road against Iowa on Wednesday night. Winners of eight of their last nine, the team has proven that it is a formidable opponent no matter who or where it plays. If Rutgers continues its winning ways, it could conceivably qualify for the national tournament.
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