If Rutgers plays deep into March at the end of the season, they may very well point back to Saturday’s double overtime exhibition loss to St. John’s as a reason why. Trailing by 18 points at the half, the Scarlet Knights mounted an impressive comeback behind the program’s trademark halfcourt defense. RU had two chances to win it in regulation. They allowed three attempts from behind the arc before the last went in at the buzzer of overtime to extend the game yet again. Ultimately, Rutgers lost 89-78 in a game that had the competitiveness of a postseason game.
“We were down 20 points at one point,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said in the postgame. “We just have to make timely rebounds and make a couple more free throws. We learned a lot from this.”
That was the point of scheduling this exhibition, along with raising money for a great cause. The game was supporting the Dick Vitale Pediatric Cancer Research Fund at the Jimmy V Foundation.
“Dick Vitale is a legend in coaching in college basketball,” Pikiell said. “I am very thankful that Coach Rick Pitino allowed this game for the V Foundation. Jim Valvano was a Rutgers guy. I appreciate everyone coming out to support. I learned a lot about my team today. We got to work on a lot of stuff. It is a good group. We could have just rolled over, but we kept playing. It was a heck of a game. They came out on the winning-side, but I think it’s a win for everyone. A win for pediatric cancer, a win for Dick Vitale, Jimmy V, and Coach Greg Schiano with a big dub at Indiana. It was a good day for a lot of people.”
Rutgers had ten players all earn double digit minutes and gained valuable experience in a difficult road environment against a top half Big East team. The Scarlet Knights missed all ten attempt from three-point range and struggled mightily with the full court pressure of St. John’s. The game changed in the second half with Rutgers’ ball pressure in its half court defense. They held Pitino’s team to just 25.7% shooting in the second half and outscored them 44-26 to send the game to overtime.
“They were really good offensively and we turned the ball over a ton, so they got a lot of opportunities,” Pikiell explained. “It’s a good team at St. John’s. Those kids are all-league players from all over. It was the first game on the road too. I thought we settled down and played Rutgers basketball in the second half. We have a lot of new faces. There were certainly some positives for us. A lot of guys contributed for us. Gavin and J-Mike got their first opportunity. So, some good signs for us, but we have to shoot the ball better and make free throws and that’s what we can’t do when you are on the road against a team like that.”
Both teams shot 37% for the game, but Rutgers struggled even more from three-point range and the foul line. RU was just 4 of 20 (20.0%) from behind the arc and only 18 of 29 (62.1%) from the charity stripe. St. John’s wasn’t much better, making 10 of 38 threes (26%) and 19 of 29 free throws (66%).
The Johnnies held a +7 rebounding margin and 14-7 advantage in second chance points. However, Rutgers held a 42-32 edge with points in the paint.
As for the up tempo style for both teams, St. John’s held a slight 21-19 edge in transition points. Both teams committed a lot of turnovers, as RU had 18 and the Johnnies had 16. The Scarlet Knights held a 19-18 edge in points off of turnovers. Rutgers did have 10 steals, two more than the pressing hosts.
“I was delighted when Rutgers agreed to play this game, because when you play against a well-coached team this early in the year, as good a coached team as there is in the country, [it makes you better],” Pitino said. “For us, winning by 20 or 25 would’ve killed my team. It would’ve been the worst lesson of all time. Going into double overtime in an exhibition game is a dream come true. I told my team, I’d rather lose than win by 20, because of all the lessons you can learn from a close game.”
Cliff Omoruyi represented well in his matchup with All-Big East center Joel Soriano. He tied for a team high 16 points on 6 of 12 shooting. He also led RU with 9 rebounds as well as 2 blocks and a steal. Cliff had a key block of Soriano at the end of regulation. The St. John’s big man finished with 12 points on 6 of 15 shooting along with a game high 16 rebounds and 2 blocks.
The two freshman for Rutgers looked ready to be major contributors this season.
Jamichael Davis was the surprise of the game for RU, finishing tied with Cliff for a team high 16 points on 5 of 11 from the floor and 6 of 10 from the foul line. He added 6 rebounds, 2 assists and a block. His perimeter defense and ability to get to the rim off the dribble were big positives.
Gavin Griffiths had 14 points on 5 of 15 shooting and 3 of 8 from behind the arc. He made all three deep shots in the second half as Rutgers got back into the game. He also rebounded well, grabbing 5 rebounds along with an assist.
Derek Simpson had 9 points on 3 of 8 shooting along with 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and a block. Backcourt mate Noah Fernandes had 7 points on 2 of 4 shooting along with 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals but fouled out in the game.
“You always try to win the game, but the reason I like to play closed scrimmages is because I like to try different lineups and do things like that but when you open it up it’s different,” Pikiell said. “We got a lot out of this scrimmage and I’m thankful to Coach Pitino and St. John’s. I have a ton of respect for the program. They have talented guys they are going to have a heck of a year. You are trying to figure your guys out. We had ten guys that got some minutes and got their feet wet. But yes, it is a combination of both you always try to win, but also try to see some guys too.”
Rutgers was without Mawot Mag, Emmanuel Ogbole and Jeremiah Williams. Pikiell said he they are being cautious in Mag’s return from a torn ACL suffered last February. Ogbole tore an ACL last March and Williams isn’t expected to be eligible as a two-time transfer. St. John’s was also without guards RJ Luiz and Cruz Davis as both are out with broken hands. In addition, Ivy League Player of the Year Jordan Dingle didn’t play either.
Despite the double overtime loss, this exhibition should really benefit Rutgers as they prepare for the 2023-2024 season. This was a big test on the road against a team right outside of the preseason Top 25. Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach and made his debut in Jamaica. It was a big moment and RU could have wilted. After a slow start, they showed real fight in clawing their way back into it. It may have been a mid-October scrimmage, but the lights were on and the Scarlet Knights showed they belonged. This was the case despite playing different lineups than should be expected during the season. That means something and the value in losing the way they did can teach them a lot in how to close out games when they count for real.
The season officially begins in Trenton on Monday, November 6 on a neutral court against old rival Princeton. However, this Rutgers team probably feels like it began on Saturday. As the seconds wound down, words were exchanged between both teams. Coaches from both sides made sure it didn’t escalate. It sure seemed like more than an exhibition game which is a great sign for the mentality of this team.
“Rutgers basketball is all about adversity. We just kept pushing and playing,” Noah Fernandes said after the game. “That’s the group of guys we have. We have 15 guys and coaches who are all like that. We’re never going to give up and Rutgers fans don’t give up on us.”
If there is one takeaway for Rutgers fans following this double overtime exhibition loss, it’s that this team will be fun to watch and has a toughness that bodes well for the long season ahead.
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