College Basketball – Free Throws Bite Rutgers in Competitive Loss vs. Iowa
In its biggest game of the 2020-21 season to date – a top-15 showdown against No. 10 Iowa at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Saturday afternoon – No. 14 Rutgers did just about everything right.
The Scarlet Knights had all five starters reaching double-figure scoring, won the turnover battle against one of the Big Ten’s most sure-handed teams, won the offensive glass, made one more three-pointer than the team that has made the most in the conference this year, and held the top scorer in the nation below his scoring average.
But then there was the free-throw line.
Rutgers entered Saturday with one of the worst team free-throw shooting percentages in the country and the worst in the Big Ten at 62 percent, and although the Knights were coming off a 14-for-17 performance in Tuesday’s win over Purdue, the free throw line finally rose up off the court and tripped up Rutgers.
The 77-75 Iowa win was a showcase of two of the best teams in college basketball’s deepest conference at one of the most unique home settings in the country (albeit without fans). In that sense, coach Steve Pikiell and his Rutgers team were happy to go toe-to-toe with a top-10 team in the nation and outplay the Hawkeyes in several facets of the game.
Ultimately, however, the Scarlet Knights let a game slip away because of an established weakness over the first nine games of the season. It was dangerous enough that Iowa – shooting 72 percent as a team entering Saturday – shot 11 more free throws than Rutgers did, making 18 out of 23. Rutgers compounded the disparity in attempts by making just four of its 12 shots from the line.
“That was one of our huge keys – to win the free-throw-line battle and obviously, we didn’t,” Pikiell said. “We did a lot of good things in a lot of different areas, but we certainly didn’t win the battle at the free-throw line and that as a big key to us going into the game.”
In Rutgers’ first loss of the season at Ohio State on Dec. 23, a free-throw disparity also contributed to the team’s demise on that night, but Rutgers would not have won that game shooting better than the 10-for-17 performance it turned in that night in Columbus. On Saturday afternoon – just four nights after seemingly quieting some of the questions about free-throw shooting with a 14-for-17 game at the line in an 81-76 win over Purdue – the Scarlet Knights had to reckon with their free throw shooting after it finally cost the team a win in a high-profile game.
“What we took from today is we’ve got to make foul shots,” Ron Harper Jr. said. “We shot four-for-twelve from the foul line and that’s just unacceptable. You’re not going to win a lot of basketball games like that. It’s on everybody in the locker room to get better and we’re going to keep sticking together through adversity.”
Playing With the Best of the Big Ten
While the final result was a disappointment and the free-throw shooting a concern, Rutgers did just about everything else it set out to do on Saturday against one of the nation’s top offensive teams. Iowa game in averaging a shade over nine turnovers per game and Rutgers forced them into 15 giveaways while committing only 10 of their own. Rutgers corralled more offensive rebounds than Iowa as well, although Iowa won the overall rebounding battle, 40-39. The Knights even made more three-pointers (9-for-23) than the team with the most made three’s in the Big Ten (7-for-18).
“My takeaway from the game is we can hang with anybody,” senior Geo Baker said. “That’s a really good team and we felt like we should have won the game. We’re a really good team too, so that’s my takeaway.”
“We came up one possession short against a really good opponent,” Pikiell said. “But that is life in the league that we play in. We’ll keep getting better.”
Iowa center Luka Garza came up two points shy of his 27.7 points-per-game average, finishing with 25 points and only four rebounds, but shot 9-for-11 from the field, 6-for-7 from the foul line and scored 15 of his points in the final 8:31 of the game.
"I just had to get the ball," Garza said. "They were playing so aggressively defensively, our guards weren’t able to get the ball to me. It was a credit to them and their game plan. They made it the toughest I had to catch. All I had to do was get the ball in my hands and I knew I could score. It was easier said than done for the whole game."
Junior center Myles Johnson led the defensive effort that bottled up Garza for the first 11-plus minutes of the second half and also added 13 points and 10 rebounds. With 6-11 freshman Cliff Omoruyi still out with a knee injury, classmate Dean Reiber stepped in for 10 quality minutes on defense, which included two block – the second of which led to a transition three-pointer by Baker that extended Rutgers’ lead to 50-43 with 12:34 left.
“Dean has been getting better and better in practice,” Pikiell said. “You see how athletic he is. Again, we needed all hands on deck – we still have Cliff not able to play, so everyone had to be ready. He (Garza) has seen every kind of defense, he’s a really good post player and you need a lot of fresh bodies to guard him because he wears you down in a lot of ways, plus he can step out and shoot threes. Dean’s been getting better and because he has been practicing better, he has been getting more minutes.”
Balanced Scoring in the Loss
Johnson was one of four Rutgers players to score 13 points, while senior Jacob Young led the Knights with 17 points to go with four assists and three steals. Baker scored 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting with four rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks, while junior Montez Mathis pitched in 13 points, five rebounds and five assists.
After missing Tuesday’s game vs. Purdue with an ankle injury, Ron Harper Jr. returned the starting lineup to post 13 points, six rebounds and two steals. He missed all three of his three-point attempts in the second half but made several key defensive plays and threw down a thunderous and-one dunk that gave Rutgers a 71-70 lead with 2:02 left. Harper, however, came up empty on the free throw and finished 0-for-3 for the game.
“When you’re out there and your shots not falling, stuff happens to you,” Harper said. “I was out there trying to help my team win – whether it was getting a rebound, getting a stop, getting a block. We take pride on defense. At Rutgers, we take defense very personal. When shots aren’t falling, I can’t only play one half of the floor.”
Rutgers led by seven points on multiple occasions in the second half but Iowa answered the Scarlet Knights’ latest seven-point advantage with a 10-0 run to take a 57-54 lead with 7:22 left. Rutgers jumped back ahead, 61-59, on a transition layup by Harper off a dump-off from Mathis with 5:44 left and Young hit a corner three with 5:13 left to make it 64-61.
Iowa surged back in front on a three-point play by Garza that put the Hawkeyes ahead, 66-65, and Johnson came back with a tying alley-oop dunk off a lob from Baker and go-ahead tip-in that pushed Rutgers in front, 73-72, with 1:11 left.
Jordan Bohanan (13 points) hit a fading jumper with 48 seconds left to put Iowa back ahead and Baker responded with a go-ahead drive to the basket with 35 seconds left, making it 75-74.
Joe Wieskamp came up short on a three-point shot attempt on the other end but freshman Keegan Murray (14 points) secured the offensive rebound and was fouled by Harper on the floor. With Rutgers in the penalty since the midway point of the half, Murray was awarded two free throws and hit them both for a 76-75 Iowa lead.
Rutgers turned the ball over on its next possession, with Baker losing the ball near the elbow and Johnson losing his grip on a pass from Mathis as he drifted out of bounds with four seconds left. Wieskamp made one of two foul shots on the other end and Rutgers used its last time out with three seconds left to draw up one last play.
Young got the ball in the back court and put up a running three-pointer at the buzzer that missed the mark.
“The guys take all the losses hard and I’m glad they do,” Pikiell said. “It’s a real caring locker room. We’ve got to continue to work through all the obstacles this league brings you.”
McConnell Lifts Rutgers with Return
Harper was not the only Rutgers player to return from an injury absence Saturday. Junior Caleb McConnell dressed for the first time this season and played 11 minutes – including nine in the first half. McConnell shot 0-for-5 and did not score, but his return to the team after nursing a back injury that was initially expected to force him into taking a medical red-shirt year is a significant development for Rutgers going forward.
“You’re always going to have (rust),” Pikiell said. “He hasn’t played in a while. I’m just thankful his back is better. He just wants to do whatever he can to help our team. To have a player like him with a lot of experience – he’s kind of a multi-position player.
“He had been practicing with us and he finally came and said, ‘Coach, my back is good. Let’s give this thing a whirl.’ It’s good to have him back and we look forward to him continuing to rehab his back and feel good and continue to help us.”
Iowa, meanwhile, lost a starter on Saturday, with guard Connor McCaffery leaving early in the second half due to an ankle injury. McCaffery was ruled out according to the team, but he returned to inbound the ball on Iowa’s last possession after the Hawkeyes had to burn their final timeout trying to put the ball in play against Rutgers’s pressure.
On to East Lansing
Rutgers now faces a quick turnaround to play at Michigan State on Wednesday. It marks the second time this season that the Scarlet Knights will follow a home game against a ranked opponent with a road game against a ranked opponent three days later. After beating Illinois on Dec. 20, Rutgers suffered the road loss at Ohio State three nights later.
“We’re on to the next obstacle,” Pikiell said. “You gotta have a short memory in this conference. The next game is just as hard – it’s harder. We’ve never won at Michigan State, so you’ve got to move on quickly.”