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Rutgers men's basketball falls to Illinois in first conference game of season

Sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi put up 8 points against Illinois. – Photo by Emma Garibian

The Rutgers men’s basketball team was soundly defeated by Illinois 86-51 on Friday night. The loss drops the Scarlet Knights (4-4, 0-1) back to .500 for the second time this season and starts off Big Ten play with a loss.

The game was controlled by the Fighting Illini (6-2, 1-0) seemingly from the very beginning. By the time the game passed the 10-minute mark in the first half, Illinois had built a 21-9 lead. Thanks to a 48.39 percent shooting half and 6 three-pointers, the Fighting Illini led 43-23 at the half.

Rutgers failed to make a dent in the lead in the second half, and Illinois expanded on its lead. The 35-point lead at the end was also the largest lead of the game as the Knights finished with their second-lowest field goal percentage of the season at 30.9 percent.

“It's been kind of a theme with this group. When you are focused on (shooting), you aren't focused on 90 percent of the other things that you can do. It's been an issue, and we'll continue to address it,” said head coach Steve Pikiell after the game. “Shots are an important part of the game, but there is 90 percent of other parts of the game that you can do right. It did affect us on defense that's for sure. We got some early layups that we missed. We let it affect every area of our play today.”

Leading the way in scoring and rebounding for Rutgers was freshman guard Jaden Jones with 10 points and five rebounds. Sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi and sophomore forward Mawot Mag both had 8 points. Senior guard Ron Harper Jr. faced persistent double-teams and was held to 5 points on 1-9 shooting.

Aiding the struggles was the absence of senior guard Geo Baker for a third straight game due to a hamstring injury. Pikiell said after the game that Baker has not made progress and has not been able to work out or practice yet.

The Fighting Illini were led in scoring by Alfonso Plummer who had a game-high 24 points. Joining him in double-figures were Jacob Grandison and Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn finished his evening with 13 points and a game-high 15 rebounds.

A big part of Illinois’ success was its ability to force turnovers and prevent baskets in transition. In those respective categories, the Knights turned the basketball over 14 times and only scored 3 points in transition for themselves.

“I think that was really important for us in this game. We just over-dribbled in the first half. We got ourselves into a big hole, and you can't get yourself into a hole in this league,” Pikiell said. “Our offense didn't help us in the first half, and the shots we did get the good clean ones we didn't finish. Our defense couldn't keep us hanging around, and then we came out in the second half and scored some points, but we couldn't get stops.”

Rutgers will return home for its second conference game of the season on Thursday against Purdue. The No. 2 Boilermakers (8-0, 1-0) are expected to become the top-ranked team in college basketball next week, giving the Knights a chance to earn their highest-ranked win in program history.

“We have showed signs of it. We beat Clemson the other day, and we were a good basketball team," Pikiell said. “We've got to get back to moving the basketball and to where our defense held down the fort. You've got to do that in this league … We have Purdue coming up and some really good basketball teams, so we've got to get better, and that's what we plan on doing."

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

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