When the whistle blew just a minute into the second half, it was for a surprising reason. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell was issued a technical foul for arguing what he felt was a missed foul call. Caleb McConnell was hit with a lot of physical contact on the other end of the floor playing defense. When no call was made, Pikiell snapped.
The usually composed leader was livid and was yelling at the officials that his player was fouled. Even after the technical was called, Pikiell continued to jaw at the officials. It was an unusual but welcomed sight by Rutgers fans and his team.
This was of course, the rematch against Ohio State. It was less than six weeks ago that the Buckeyes beat RU on a buzzer beating three-point shot that the Big Ten later stated should not have counted. Tanner Holden had clearly stepped out of bounds in Columbus on that night, but the officials missed it. It was a stomach punch loss and something fans will never let be forgotten. Sunday’s rematch was looked at as a revenge game to everyone except maybe Steve Pikiell.
When asked if he spoke about the first meeting and used it for motivation, Pikiell downplayed the importance of the rematch.
“Maybe by these guys (the players). Quite honestly, I don’t even think I brought it up,” Pikiell stated. “You’ve got to move on in this league. It was a long time ago. Maybe they would have a different answer, but we moved on to this game and we’ve got Michigan State on the road next. So we’ll quickly move on to that one.”
In addition, the officiating has been unpredictable and inconsistent in Big Ten play this season. Just in the last game at Northwestern, Rutgers wasn’t called for a foul in the first 16 minutes of the game. They ended up committing 15 fouls over the final 24 minutes of the contest.
So not only was frustration was increasing with fans, it apparently was with Pikiell as well.
Whether Pikiell had the active thought of being more animated with officials recently or something snapped or triggered his reaction on Sunday, it helped refocus his team on its way to another important win in Big Ten play.
It was a brilliant move. The technical came at the perfect time at the start of the second half. It’s wasn’t too late that it could cost Rutgers the game by swinging momentum. By defending one of his players, it gave his team an emotional lift. And in regard to the officials, the vocal call out by Pikiell got their attention. Soon after the technical, Cam Spencer drew a foul on a three-point attempt. After the technical as a whole, Ohio State was called for 14 fouls and Rutgers just 8, which included overtime. However, OSU did foul twice intentionally at the end of overtime.
It was the rarity of Pikiell getting a T that made it more impactful. His players knew the significance and answered the bell. Their intensity and urgency went up a notch after the technical. It was a huge moment in the game.
“I’m fighting for my guys. I’m just fighting for my guys,” reiterated Pikiell. “I thought they missed a call. I move on quickly after the game.”
Rutgers displayed its usual toughness and were able to close out the game in overtime. Cam Spencer, Mawot Mag and Cliff Omoruyi all made huge baskets late for a team that trailed 15-4 in the beginning of the game. After trailing 61-60 with 1:50 to play in overtime, RU rattled off an 8-0 run before giving up a late three near the buzzer.
“They just stay the course. Even in the first half, in the locker room, I said I liked the looks that we got,” explained Pikiell. “They’re not going. But if we can’t score, they can’t score and that’s how we just continue to grind. Even getting it into overtime the way that we did. They’re really good. That was a really good basketball team. I have a ton of respect for these guys, but down the stretch, we made a few more plays than them and that was the difference.”
In the end, it was the defense of Rutgers that won the game. After holding the third most efficient offense in the nation in Ohio State to their least efficient performance against a high major this season, Rutgers is now No. 2 nationally in defensive efficiency and tops in Big Ten play.
Both teams shot 34% as OSU produced its second worst offensive efficiency rating in games against high majors this season. The Buckeyes scored a season low 64 points and over 14 points below their scoring average. The Rutgers defense played at an elite level once again. As a team, RU blocked 8 shots and swiped 8 steals.
“Cliff gets six blocks. Everyone had some huge steals. Their freshman (Brice ) is really terrific. He made some big shots. They got the ball into the post. We did a lot of good things on the defensive end of the floor. They’re the most efficient team offensively in the league and one of the most efficient in the country. Sueing is a really good player. Mawot and everyone that played him held him to 7 points. That was one of our keys today. It takes everybody and everybody was connected.”
Rutgers will now head back on the road to East Lansing for a high profile meeting with Michigan State. The Spartans host No. 3 Purdue on Monday afternoon before taking on the Scarlet Knights on Thursday night. If MSU can knock off the Boilermakers, it will create a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings. Michigan State, Purdue and Rutgers would all have a 5-2 league mark.
When asked about the significance of his team only being half a game out of first place in the Big Ten, Pikiell remains focused on the task at hand.
“No, you guys can talk about that. We’ve got Michigan State and it’s the best league in the country. We don’t ever look down the road these guys know how I am and I’ll never change. There’s a lot of season left and there is a lot of really good basketball and there’s a lot of things that go on, so we’ve got to stay focused on what’s important.”
Rutgers is now No. 16 in the NET rankings with three coveted Quad 1 wins. They’re also No. 14 in Kenpom and have a good chance to be ranked in the national polls on Monday. While there is a long way to go this season still, the Scarlet Knights are well positioned for the postseason right now.
As far as Pikiell, he knows how to push the right buttons of his team. He’s now won 2 of 3 against Chris Holtmann. He’s won five of the last six meetings against Matt Painter. And now he’ll take Rutgers to face Michigan State after he’s beaten Tom Izzo two times in a row.
“To be able to come away with a ‘W’ after 45 minutes, it was a really difficult basketball game,” explained Pikiell. “These guys, they all stepped up. It was one of those games – the ball wasn’t going in early. We just stayed the course, hung with it. Our defense always gives us a chance. I’m just real proud. They all made big plays.”
With elite defense, clutch foul shooting, knowing how to close out games and their program defining toughness, Rutgers has a legitimate shot at winning the Big Ten title. Above all else, they have a head coach who knows the pulse of his team and how to get the most out of them.
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