For just the second time in program history, Rutgers men’s basketball both won at Mackey Arena and defeated the No. 1 team in the AP poll on Monday night. The 65-64 victory over Purdue was the perfect blueprint for the Steve Pikiell era. It featured relentless defense, overcoming multiple obstacles throughout the game and true team basketball that delivered yet another big win.
It was the 15th ranked win for Pikiell at Rutgers and the fourth against a top ten foe.
In addition, it was just the fourth ranked road win for the program over the last 22 seasons. Two of them came in the last 11 months. After beating Wisconsin last season and Purdue this season, Rutgers has ranked road wins in back to back seasons for the first time since the 1974-1975 and 1975-1976 seasons.
A common trait of every Rutgers team in the Pikiell era was on full display on Monday night.
“We’re tough. I mean, these guys have been through some wars,” Pikiell stated in the postgame press conference. “I’m sure a lot of people didn’t think we could come in here, but I think the group did. They got good confidence.”
He added, “We have good grit and they’re connected. We got a lot more tests ahead of us, a long season but get to enjoy this for five minutes.”
RU’s toughness led to them outscoring Purdue 26-22 with points in the paint. The Boilermakers came into the game No. 2 in offensive rebounding rate nationally and shooting 56% from two-point range. In this game, they were held to 48% shooting from inside the arc. They also had 12 offensive boards and had a +3 rebounding margin for the game. However, Rutgers was only -1 on the offensive glass. The Scarlet Knights actually outscored Purdue 14-13 on second chance points. It was a huge factor in the outcome.
“They’re the best offensive rebounding team in our league,” Pikiell explained. “Obviously, when you have a guy in the middle that’s a real problem when he’s averaging 5.5 offensive rebounds at night, like that stat is unbelievable. So you gotta do a lot of things. The backboards were huge key. I thought they got us a few times and they got second shots and we did foul on some of the second shots too, so that really helped them. But when we sat down and we guarded for possessions, we were pretty good and just got to do a better job of defending without fouling”
Another part of this team’s toughness was with their mindset in overcoming foul trouble. Seven players had at least three fouls with Cam Spencer and Caleb McConnell committing four apiece. Overall, Rutgers was called for 24 fouls, which was 13 more fouls than Purdue had. It resulted in 17 more free throw attempts for the Boilermakers. Despite the major disadvantage, the Scarlet Knights persevered.
“My assistants do a great job, preparing, but everyone was ready to help us today,” Pikiell said. “That’s what happens when you’re on the road. We had to fight through foul trouble the entire night. And everybody chipped in, and everyone that came in to give Caleb a blow when he had his two fouls and Cam a blow when he had his three fouls and Cliff a blow. It’s really important to us, you need everybody on a roster to win a game like this on the road. Everyone was ready to kind of chip in and do that. Good time for us. Good maturity.”
The leadership of this team was apparent as well with Paul Mulchay, Caleb McConnell and Cliff Omoruyi all playing big roles in the victory. Their experience in big games was a big reason Rutgers didn’t buckle after losing a lead they held most of the game. Instead, RU came through in the clutch. A defensive stand followed Cam Spencer hitting the game winning three in the closing seconds.
“Huge, they’ve been through these experiences before,” stated Pikiell. “They know how hard it is to play at Purdue and a lot of these venues. You’re not going through it for the first time. The guys that were new here, Cam and Wolf, and Derek, the veteran guys explained to him what it was going to be like. I think it’s so important to have those guys.
In regard to the final minute, Pikiell explained how the experience helped this team win the game.
“(I) called the play late in the game today that we ran last year. Paul knew it, they all knew it. You cannot do that if you got a bunch of newcomers. I think those kinds of things are really important to your team. And especially when you got great leadership and Paul and Caleb and the job that they’re doing and Cliff I mean, Cliff had to battle tonight for 40 minutes. It’s not easy, Edey is huge, and he poses many problems with the size, Cliff has done it before. That experience, you cannot understate that. It’s very, very important.”
The entire season, although not even halfway complete, has seen Rutgers deal with adversity. Mulcahy and McConnell missed multiple games with injuries. They lost at Miami after holding an 11 point second half lead. And then they suffered as painful a four days that a college basketball team can suffer. Losing by one point at Ohio State on a shot the Big Ten ultimately said should not have counted, followed by a 2 point loss at home to rival Seton Hall.
Through it all, this team continues to fight back. Despite the setbacks, Rutgers is 10-4 overall and 2-1 in Big Ten play. They’ve now beaten the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten in Indiana and the current favorite to win the Big Ten in Purdue. All that this team ultimately wants to accomplish is still in front of them. In the end, it will be their toughness that will get them where they want to be.
“At the end of the day Rutgers was mentally and physically tougher than we were, even if we’d won the game there,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said in the postgame. He added, “What Rutgers did tonight didn’t shock us. If we were going to war, we’d stop by New Jersey and pick them up. them cats, they play for keeps.”
It’s a major reason why they are No. 3 in defensive efficiency nationally. Defense and toughness go hand in hand as the identity of this program.
“Three games into it, it’s the best league in the country,” said Pikiell when asked if Rutgers could challenge for a Big Ten title. “So we’ve got Maryland next obviously, played some good teams and I think we’re good, right. But it’s a long, long season to worry about that you know down the road. We’ll enjoy today, we’ll get ready for a really good Maryland team. We have a bunch of ranked teams coming up. It’s never gets easy in this league.”
It’s never easy in Big Ten play and it’s never been easy for Rutgers. Through it all, this program has become one of the most successful in the league under Pikiell because this team is as tough as any there is.
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