The Rutgers men’s basketball team ended its three game losing streak last night at its home finale, defeating Maryland 78-67 in a one-sided victory. The Scarlet Knights (19-11, 10-9) faithful stormed the court in celebration at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) as soon as the clock hit 0:00. Both the team and the fans have a right to be happy, as Rutgers will now most likely make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
Emotions were running high at the RAC before the game even started. The Knights had their senior night ceremony, where they honored graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah, senior center Shaq Carter and fourth-year junior guard Joey Downes. The festivities included the arena playing “God Save the Queen” for England-native Yeboah, a humorous pregame highlight.
It turned out that the No. 9 Terrapins (23-7, 13-6) were the ones that needed saving. They could never put it all together, as they trailed Rutgers for 36:35 minutes of the game. They shot just 6 of 32 (18.8 percent) from three-point range despite getting multiple open looks. Besides Anthony Cowan (19 points) and Jalen Smith (16 points), the rest of the team scored just 32 points.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Rutgers, I thought they were terrific,” said Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. “There’s a reason they’re 18-1 in this building ... They seemed fresh, loose and having fun.”
The 18 home wins set a new school record for the Knights. It was also the first time they beat the Terrapins since 1991. Additionally, it was their fourth double-digit win against a ranked squad this year, further strengthening the team’s Tournament resume.
“The place was jumping tonight. I’m proud of my team,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “This has been the toughest stretch that Rutgers basketball has ever played ... We shared the game, 17 assists. Everyone chipped in ... Great win for us tonight.”
“Everyone chipping in” is the reason why the Knights came away with the victory. Rutgers is at its best when everyone in the rotation contributes to the box score, and last night was no exception. Junior guards Jacob Young (17 points) and Geo Baker (11 points), as well as sophomore guard Montez Mathis (15 points), all scored in double figures. Sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr., sophomore center Myles Johnson and Yeboah all reached 9 points as well.
The Knights played a complete game, something they struggled with doing over the recent losing streak. Although Maryland kept it close in the first half, Rutgers never lost control of the game. It went into halftime up 35-29, with Young already at 11 points. Playing without a large first-half deficit was a welcome sign for a Knights team that had to come back from 21 points at Penn State last week.
Once the second half got going, it was all Rutgers. It started off with a 9-2 scoring run, and the Knights never took their foot off the pedal. Soon enough, Rutgers was up 67-46 with 6:52 minutes remaining, simply too much for the Terrapins to come back from.
Asked if the Knights look like an NCAA Tournament team, “Oh yeah, absolutely. They’re talented, have really good players and are deep ... I think they can win a game or two (in the Tournament), too,” Turgeon said.
It is important to note that this praise is coming from the coach of a top 10 team in the country. Additionally, Maryland was in sole possession of first place in the conference heading into the game. It is projected as a Sweet Sixteen team by many analysts. Getting respect from a program on that level shows how far Rutgers has come this season and how the ride is far from over.
Baker was also asked if the Knights should go dancing, to which he replied, “Yeah, for sure. I think we belong in the Tournament, but there’s more work we gotta do. It’s not over yet.”
Baker is right, as Rutgers will have to travel to Purdue in the regular season finale on Saturday to try to improve on its 1-10 record away from the RAC. It’s the one glaring hole on the team's resume, and the Knights would be all but guaranteed a Tournament berth if they secure the win this weekend.
“Real happy for the community, real happy for our students and season ticket holders,” Pikiell said. “But most importantly, I’m happy for our guys.”
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