Rutgers ended its three game losing streak on Saturday at Wisconsin the best way possible. As a team.
Cam Spencer shot the team into the flow of the game and dominated the first half after making his first six shots of the game.
Cliff Omoruyi played a game high 38 minutes, had two key baskets down the stretch and was everywhere on the defensive end. He was a force on the final possession of the game for Wisconsin, ultimately blocking the last second shot that preserved the victory.
Paul Mulcahy suffered a stinger on his shoulder in the first half. He was able to return and was key in the second half. He played all 20 minutes after the break, scored or assisted on 8 of the 10 baskets RU had with the high pick and roll effective down the stretch.
Aundre Hyatt played great defense, had a team high 9 rebounds and scored the game winning field goal on a putback with just over a minute to play.
Oskar Palmquist started in place of Caleb McConnell after he was a late scratch in warmups. His stats were modest but he hit a big three, didn’t look out of place or make any key mistakes in 18 minutes.
Dean Reiber scored 5 points off the bench in a one point win. He also was a lot better defensively in the post when paired with Cliff.
Derek Simpson only scored one basket but he is proving he can be trusted down the stretch in games. His decision to drive the baseline with the shot clock winding down and just over a minute to play showed poise & decision making of a veteran. He missed the contested shot at the rim but Aundre Hyatt was there to deliver the winning basket. Simpson hasn’t flinched when given a bigger role the past four games and is growing up in real time.
Without contributions from any one player on Saturday, Rutgers would have lost. The team’s defensive effort as a whole was tremendous. They held Wisconsin to 33% shooting and 8 points under their season scoring average. The fact that it happened after Tuesday’s loss to Nebraska in which they allowed 82 points and without their best defensive player in Caleb McConnell made it all the more impressive.
“Our defense came back,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after the win. “We haven’t been playing Rutgers defense the last few games, but I am proud of our guys. We were down a couple guys and everyone checked in and did some great things but just another Big Ten grind.”
Wisconsin was No. 3 nationally in turnover rate coming in and only committed 5 turnovers. That meant Rutgers had to get stops on missed shots and rebound well to prevent second chance scoring opportunities. They grabbed 74% of missed shots by the Badgers and while allowing 9 offensive rebounds, RU only surrendered two second chance points.
McConnell was warming up before the game when he experienced back spasms. He was on the sideline in the first half stretching and on a stationary bike attempting to get loose. However, he was declared out of the game at the start of the second half.
Asked about the situation by the Wisconsin media, Pikiell said, “Right before the game I found out. His back just went out on him and he couldn’t walk. It was during warmups right before tip off. So that’s when we knew. We’ve lost Mawot Mag for the season and now we were down Caleb McConnell, who I think is the best defender in the country. The next guy was ready. Oskar Palmquist hasn’t played a lot of minutes and gave us 18 really good minutes. Dean Reiber and everyone chipped in and you needed that in a game like this against a really good Wisconsin team.”
For the fourth season in a row, Rutgers earned a key road win they had to have down the stretch in late February or March. After its worst defensive showing of the season on Tuesday night against the Huskers, they delivered their most unexpected defensive performance. With their backs against the wall even more so with the unexpected loss of McConnell, Rutgers responded like winning teams do. They came together and gutted out a huge victory. The Scarlet Knights showed heart and toughness in a major way.
With four games remaining in the regular season, RU is now 17-10 overall and 9-7 in Big Ten play. There is a long way to go, but on Saturday this team answered any questions about their unity. They played together and for each other in the face of adversity all around them. It’s usually when Rutgers is at its best in the Steve Pikiell era and this group proved it once more.
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