The road to the NCAA Tournament is looking even more clear for the Rutgers men’s basketball team as it continued its late-season stride, defeating Illinois 70-59 in front of a sold-out crowd at Jersey Mike’s Arena on Livingston campus. The Scarlet Knights (16-9, 10-5) defeated their fourth straight ranked opponent and are now just one game out of first place in the Big Ten.
Rutgers and the No. 12 Fighting Illini (18-7, 11-4) began the game trading baskets, with Kofi Cockburn scoring his team’s first 7 points. The Knights scored the first basket and kept their lead for the remainder of the game, jumping out to a 10-point lead just 6 minutes into the ballgame. Senior guard Ron Harper Jr. continued to be one of the spark plugs for the offense early, recording 9 first-half points and hitting a Michael Jordan-esque shrug after making a three-pointer.
Illinois came into this game as the best rebounding team in the Big Ten but were dominated on the boards by Rutgers who led the stat 29-15 after 20 minutes. The Fighting Illini went 1-14 from three and shot less than 33 percent from the field in the first half.
The Knights turned up the heat in the second half, as sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi put an alley-oop down to start a 10-1 run that increased the lead to 19. Illinois was able to cut the lead to 9 with less than 2 minutes left, but Rutgers held on, claiming its sixth Quad 1 victory of the season and redeeming its December matchup that saw the Fighting Illini win by 35 points.
Omoruyi was tasked with a big responsibility tonight, matching up with Cockburn, one of the favorites to win the Big Ten Player of the Year. Omoruyi responded with possibly the biggest performance in his college career, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds while throwing down multiple dunks.
Cockburn was held in check by Omoruyi after the early outburst, finishing with 20 points. Four of the five starters for the Knights finished with double-digit scoring, led by Harper’s 16. Harper exited the game in the final minute after an apparent hand injury and did not return.
Junior guard Paul Mulcahy continued his hot stretch, finishing with 13 points and three rebounds. On the defensive end, senior guard Caleb McConnell showed why he is one of the favorites for this season’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award, registering four steals for the fourth consecutive game.
Rutgers was able to take away the strengths of the Fighting Illini, outrebounding them 46-28 and holding them less than 30 percent shooting from behind the arc. The Knights shot nearly 50 percent from the field and held a 14-2 advantage in fast break points.
Rutgers next travels on Sunday to West Lafayette, Indiana, to face Purdue at 5:30 p.m. The Knights will be looking for a season sweep after defeating the then-No. 1 Boilermakers (22-4, 11-4) on an unforgettable buzzer beater from Harper.
After multiple losses early in the season, Rutgers now appears to have saved its season and has played themselves into NCAA Tournament contention.
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