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Rutgers falls to Wisconsin despite 2nd half surge

 – Photo by Curstine Guevarra

The Rutgers men’s basketball team suffered another road defeat at Wisconsin yesterday, falling 79-71 at the Kohl Center. The Scarlet Knights (18-10, 9-8) couldn’t contain the Badgers’ (17-10, 10-6) offensive attack, allowing Wisconsin to shoot 11 of 22 from three-point range. The Badgers also shot 20 of 26 (76.9 percent) from the free throw line in comparison to Rutgers' 7 of 10 mark.

This matchup followed a familiar script for the Knights in road games this season. They fell behind by double digits, down 39-26 at halftime. Things were looking even more bleak for Rutgers when the deficit extended to 58-42 with 11:27 left in the second half. Time and time again, though, the Knights have shown that they never quit, and yesterday was no exception.

Junior guard Geo Baker and sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. anchored the offense as the game went on, helping Rutgers bring the deficit down to 73-68 with 2:19 minutes remaining. After that, though, the team hit a wall. It only made one more field goal for the rest of the game, a late jumper by Harper Jr., after the outcome was no longer in question.

"Great environment here,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “(Badgers head) Coach (Greg) Gard does a great job with the team. They've been playing great basketball. I knew it would be tough to come in here. But I'm proud of my guys, we work, we continue to grind. Wisconsin made free throws down the stretch. They made threes. Those were two huge keys for us, and they got us."

Micah Potter and Brad Davidson led the way for Wisconsin with 4 and 3 made three-pointers, respectively. Nate Reuvers did his damage from the charity stripe, making 8 of his 10 attempts. 

The Knights’ struggles with perimeter defense spoiled an efficient overall shooting day for the squad. They shot 30 of 60 from the field, with Harper Jr. scoring a game-leading 21 points. Baker (16 points) and sophomore guard Montez Mathis (12 points) also got into double figures. Mathis stepped up his production significantly from last game, when he did not score in the loss to Michigan.

Outside of Mathis and Harper Jr., though, Rutgers got virtually no production from beyond the arc. Both players made a pair of threes, but the rest of the team shot an 0 for 7 mark. Combined with the Knights’ lack of free throw attempts compared to the Badgers, it was simply not enough offense to get the victory.

"They got off to a good start,” Pikiell said. “They were shooting the ball well, and that dictates your game plan. They don't give you a lot of time, so you better be there on the catch. I thought we settled down in the second half. We had a lot of turnovers in the first half. And they have a lot of shooters, more now than the first time we played them. They're a tough team to play. You have to pick your poison."

Pikiell was right about Rutgers settling down in the second half. After turning the ball over eight times in the first half, it only had two giveaways in the second half. This was a major reason why it outscored Wisconsin 45-40 after halftime. Unfortunately for the Knights, though, they once again dug itself too deep of a hole to climb out of.

Although Rutgers lost its second-straight game, its top scorers are staying sharp. Baker’s 16 points brought his career total to 1,003 points, making him the 44th Knights player to hit the 1,000-point milestone. His team-leading six assists also gave him 300 assists for his career, moving him into 15th-place on Rutgers' all-time list.

Baker has averaged 16.4 points over the last five games, with Harper Jr. scoring an even 16 points. The Knights need both of them to stay on point during the final stretch of the regular season, as their schedule is ranked the hardest in the nation by ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Rutgers will look for its second road win of the season when it travels to Penn State on Wednesday. In order for them to solidify their NCAA Tournament resume, it is imperative that the Knights improves on their 1-9 record away from the Rutgers Athletic Center. 

"These are all tough venues,” Pikiell said. “Not a lot of people come into Wisconsin and have success. We'll have a chance if we keep playing hard and fighting through the obstacles this league brings, especially on the road."

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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