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Rutgers men's basketball set to take on Clemson in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Senior guard Caleb McConnell and the Rutgers men’s basketball team will look to bounce back in their game against Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.  – Photo by Olivia Thiel

The Rutgers men's basketball team will return to action tonight to face Clemson. The Scarlet Knights (3-3, 0-0) will look to break a three-game losing streak which has seen the team fall short by one possession in each of those losses.

Last time out, Rutgers was defeated by UMass 85-83 in a game in which the Knights held a 12-point lead heading into halftime and had a 15-point lead with just under 9 minutes to go. The game was decided on a three-pointer scored by Noah Fernandes at the buzzer. 

In the loss, the program had six players score in double-figures led by 16 points from sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi. Senior guard Geo Baker did not play in Saturday’s loss due to a hamstring injury.

“The offensive end didn't hurt us today,” said head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell after the game. “It was strictly getting stops. It comes down to a one-possession game and our defense didn't help us at all down the stretch … Obviously you miss a guy like (Baker) in a late-game situation.”

Tonight's matchup against the Tigers (5-2, 0-0) is a much-anticipated rematch of a opening-round thriller in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Led by four double-digit scorers, 10th-seeded Rutgers was able to pull off an upset and advance past seventh-seeded Clemson 60-56. The win gave the Knights their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1983.

This year, the two programs will meet as part of the 2021 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Running from Monday through Wednesday, the games include several intriguing matchups such as Duke at Ohio State, Iowa at Virginia and Louisville at Michigan State. The Knights defeated Syracuse in last year’s iteration of the games.

Looking at the season so far for Rutgers, senior guard Ron Harper Jr. has led the way in points per game (PPG) and rebounds per game (RPG), averaging 15 PPG and nine RPG through six games. Omoruyi and Baker also average double-digit scoring with Omoruyi right behind Harper Jr. in the rebounding category, hauling in 7.7 RPG.

Baker leads the team in assists per game (APG) with an average of four per game. Behind Baker is junior guard Paul Mulcahy, who dishes out 3.7 APG. Senior guard Caleb McConnell is the leader in steals with 2.7 steals per game.

As a team, the Knights are having a difficult time shooting the ball. At 40.3 percent, Rutgers ranks second-to-last among its Big Ten rivals in field goal percentage and last in three-point percentage at 24.1 percent. Despite this, the Knights have remained a strong rebounding team, collecting the fifth-most RPG among their conference foes.

Meanwhile on the other side, the Tigers are led by familiar faces from last season’s NCAA Tournament game. Clemson’s top scorer is PJ Hall and he is followed by three players that saw significant minutes in the game against Rutgers in March: Al-Amir Dawes, Nick Honor and Hunter Tyson

The Tigers enter tonight's game having defeated Charleston Southern 91-59 on Friday. Prior to the win, the team had lost two straight games, both by single digits.

The Knights' game against Clemson will tip off at 9 p.m. and will be broadcasted on ESPN2.

“We've lost three games by one possession,” Pikiell said. “We haven't been able to finish them. You're right, and hold those expectations against me too, guys. Because I really believe in this team. This team is going to keep working and we're going to figure this out.”

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

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