It was the most beautiful rerun Rutgers fans have ever seen. With NCAA Tournament hopes hanging on by a thread, Steve Pikiell’s team came through in a major way with the season on the line. Four years in a row when RU has had their backs against the wall, they’ve found a way to win. And no surprise, it came from a superb defensive effort that held Michigan to 35% shooting and just 4 made field goals in the second half. The Scarlet Knights knocked off the trendy pick to win the Big Ten Tournament 62-50 in Chicago on Thursday.
It was a slow start to the game as Michigan jumped out to a 7-0 lead early on. Rutgers recovered but trailed most of the opening frame. They shot just 29.4% in the first half but went into the locker room with hope after strong play from its bench. Oskar Palmquist made two huge free throws. With Cliff Omoruyi on the bench with two fouls, Antwone Woolfolk finished the half with six points. He provided a spark. The Wolverines hit a three at the buzzer to lead 28-25 at the break, but the team was showing life.
Rutgers came out ready to play and set the tone with a 9-1 run to lead Michigan 34-29 four minutes into the second half. The Wolverines battled back to make it a 40-39 game with about 11 minutes to play. Derek Simpson, who was inserted into the starting lineup, drew a foul and headed to the free throw line. He made the first foul shot but missed the second. However, he followed his shot, grabbed the miss and converted the layup to put RU up 43-39 with 10:41 remaining. It was a play that seemed to start to break the will of the Wolverines. Simpson stood tall in the biggest game of his career so far and was a major key to the victory.
It resulted in a 22-11 game closing run that ensured a 62-50 win for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights played like the top defense in the Big Ten and held Michigan to a season low in points.
Steve Pikiell outcoached Juwan Howard with several key adjustments from the last meeting. Starting Simpson seemed inevitable, but replacing Aundre Hyatt allowed Rutgers to better counter Michigan with a smaller lineup. 5’11” Tug McDaniel was huge in the first game but was 0 of 3 from the field in this matchup. Simpson ran the offense for the majority of the game and it worked. He finshed with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 0 turnovers. Although he was just 6 of 16 shooting, he created offense and RU was able to capitalize on the glass. They held a +6 edge in offensive rebounds and a 10-5 edge in second chance points.
The use of the bench was key but it was the second half defensive adjustment that really stood out. Pikiell countered Hunter Dickinson dominating the first half by switching to a zone, denying him entry passes and swarming the ball every time he had it. He still finished with 24 points, but was just 2 of 7 from the floor in the second half after 6 of 10 in the first. No other Michigan player scored and they were held to just one field goal over 19 minutes. The Wolverines hit three threes in the final minute, but it didn’t matter.
The other key difference was running the offense through Simpson and Spencer. In the first half, Rutgers tried to run it through Cliff Omoruyi but it wasn’t working. The offense was freer and the ball moved better when Simpson created and Spencer looked for his shot. Cam led Rutgers with 18 points on 6 of 11 shooting and made all four free throws down the stretch. RU executed the final minute to perfection.
Rutgers forced 14 turnovers and held a 18-8 advantage in points off of turnovers. Caleb McConnell was everywhere and had more than his credited 2 steals. He also had an iconic moment in defending Hunter Dickinson for a possession and forcing him into a terrible shot that went off the side of the backboard. McConnell was just 2 of 10 shooting for 4 points, but had 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals despite not being healthy enough to practice.
The Scarlet Knights will play No. 1 seed Purdue on Friday at noon ET on the Big Ten Network. To watch game highlights, both postgame press conferences and more from the win over Michigan, click here.
Here is my rapid reaction video that includes my analysis, the joy in watching this team play the way they did and more on what this means for the program’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
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