College Basketball – No. 19 Rutgers Topples No. 13 Illinois for 6-0 Start
In the biggest game in decades at the RAC for the Rutgers Men’s Basketball Team, the only audible cheering in one of the nation’s loudest venues during the first four minutes of the game came from a fired-up Illinois bench while their starters steamrolled the home team to start the game.
Perhaps other Rutgers team of years gone by might have needed the RAC crowd to wake them up or a big adjustment in the gameplan or a running clock to put an overmatched team out of its misery.
This year’s group didn’t need any of it. They just needed to play like a really good team, which – as the country is finding out with each game – is how Rutgers should now be classified.
Rutgers absorbed an early haymaker from the No. 13 team in the country to survive the first half and took over during the final 20 minutes to beat the preseason Big Ten favorite, 91-88, Sunday in Piscataway to improve to 6-0. It is the first time since 1976 Rutgers has beaten a ranked team while also ranked themselves.
Last year, Rutgers thrived off its home crowd on the way to an 18-1 record at the RAC. With no fans in attendance during the 2020-21 season, the home-court edge was a question coming into the year – particularly against ranked competition in a stacked Big Ten Conference. Whether Rutgers still has an edge at the RAC or it has just improved to the point that it can now better handle more neutral settings, the lack of a crowd did not phase Rutgers, nor help Illinois.
“I thought that was a great college basketball game,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “It’s too bad the RAC wasn’t full of our fans. That would have been a great environment.”
“We can score this year, we can defend. (The deficit was) a couple possessions. I thought we were getting good shots. I thought we did a good job not turning the ball over and on the glass. Those were the two things during every timeout that I was concerned about. I wasn’t concerned about being up or down at any point. I knew how this team would play.”
The Stat-Sheet Stars
Junior Ron Harper Jr. shook off a quiet first half to score a game-high 28 points, while senior Jacob Young (24 points, four assists) and Montez Mathis (15 points) turned in big two-way efforts by putting up double-figure scoring and combining to shadow Illinois leading scorer Ayo Dosunmo.
“When we were down 11, we could have got on our backs and just gave up, but we didn’t,” said Harper, whose team fell behind 8-0 and 26-15 in the early going. “We kept fighting, we stayed together and we showed that we are a bunch of fighters.”
Dosunmo finished with a big line of 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but entered the final 5:30 with 13 points – nine below his season average. Dosunmo’s nine points in the final five minutes did not bite the No. 19 Knights thanks to a 16-3 Rutgers run that gave the home team its biggest lead of the game at 68-56 with 6:53 left.
“His numbers were unbelievable but I do think we made his life difficult,” Pikiell said of his team’s job on Dosunmo. “You’ve got to guard him with your team. He’s obviously a really talented player who can score in a lot of different ways. You have to do it with your team, but Jacob Young and Montez are really good defenders.”
“He’s a great player, so he got his 20 but I thought I did a great job,” Young said. “A great player is going to score his points but we got the dub.”
Harper entered Sunday ranked sixth in the country in points per game, three spots ahead of Dosunmo, and exceeded his 23-plus points per game average even after a poor shooting start. Harper shot 2-for-7 from the field for six points in the first half before erupting for 22 points on 7-for-8 from the floor in the second half.
“I didn’t do anything special,” Harper said. “My teammates got me the ball. When my teammates get me the ball, I’m going to knock it down because that’s what I’m supposed to do. I didn’t dig into any bag of tricks. My teammates did, if anything.”
Just Enough Defense
Rutgers defense also made an adjustment, taking the three-point shot away from Illinois in the second half after the Illini shot 5-for-9 from beyond the arc in the first half. Illinois wound up shooting 9-for-15 for the game but did not even attempt a three-point shot in the second half until Trent Frazier hit a transition three-pointer with 6:02 left in the half.
Illinois also did not get to the free-throw line as much as it is used to, with Rutgers outshooting them 36 attempts to 15. At better than 23 attempts per game, Illinois entered Sunday in the top 40 in the country in free-throws attempted.
“You can’t defend the foul line so I thought we did a great job, especially in the second half, of not fouling,” Pikiell said.
Rutgers also turned around its own foul shooting woes, which continued in the first half. The Scarlet Knights entered the game shooting a tick over 50 percent for the season and shot only 5-for-12 in the first half before finding the touch in the second half (21-for-26).
“Missing free throws is frustrating but we work on that stuff all the time,” Harper said. “We started the game at a low percentage but we bounced back and sealed the game.”
The Coaches’ MVP’s
While Harper, Young and Mathis led the scoring effort, junior center Myles Johnson and sophomore guard Paul Mulcahy were the defensive stars for Rutgers. Johnson made Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn (17 points, 12 rebounds, 7-for-14 shooting) work while both were in the game and posted nine points to go with a game-high 13 rebounds and three blocks.
“Myles Johnson, I thought, was the difference in the game,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Everybody's gonna look to (Ron) Harper (Jr.) because he scored some points and made some shots but Myles Johnson was the difference in the game.”
“Kofi is a huge, huge person,” Johnson said. “You have to move your feet, you can’t just stand behind him or he’s going to bury you in the paint. You have to box him out or he is going to bulldoze his way to the rim. You have to play physical, I did that, and it seemed to work.”
Mulcahy did not rack up his normal assist total (one on Sunday) but was a spark in getting to loose balls and in Rutgers help defense – particularly against Cockburn down low. On one play, the 6-6 sophomore and former Gill St. Bernard’s star slid over a blocked Cockburn in front of the rim to force a tie-up. He later stripped him as he was going up for what he hoped would be another of his thunderous dunks – of which Cockburn had two on Sunday.
Mulcahy also kept two plays alive that led to a three by Harper in the first half and a dunk by Mathis in the second and drew a flagrant foul on Illinois’s Da’Mon Williams as part of a six-point Rutgers possession that came during the 16-3 second-half run. He finished with eight points and seven rebounds while shooting 6-for-6 from the foul line.
“Shoutout to Paul Mulcahy,” Young said. “He is a dog and he knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
“He rebounds, he gets assists, he defends, he’s a really good rotation guy, he gives us some direction at times and I can move him around out there,” Pikiell said. “He does a lot of things out there that don’t always show up in the box score, but he’s tough and he does winning things.”
Injury Woes for Rutgers
The Rutgers rotation was limited to seven on Sunday and dropped to six when freshman center Cliff Omoruyi injured his right knee during a scuffle for a loose ball early in the second half. The former Roselle Catholic star was helped off the court and did not return, but was standing up on several occasions in the Rutgers bench area. Pikiell did not know the extent of Omoruyi’s injury.
In addition to losing Omoruyi during the game, Rutgers did not have freshman forward Mawat Mag available due to a sprained ankle he sustained in practice, according to Pikiell. Both player are day-to-day and Pikiell said Omoruyi will be evaluated on Monday.
On Offense, Rutgers Has Leveled Up
In two games meetings last season, Rutgers held Illinois to under 60 points, with Dosunmo sitting out a 72-57 Rutgers win in Piscataway in February. Illinois reached is season average in scoring on Saturday, but Rutgers countered with a scoring attack that has reached another level in Pikiell’s fifth season as head coach. A year ago, when Rutgers won 20 games and set itself up for a likely trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, the Scarlet Knights scored 69.9 points per game while shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range.
During its 6-0 start, Rutgers is averaging 82.1 points, shooting 51 percent from the field and is up to 36.5 percent from three. The Knights shot 46.8 percent overall and 40 percent (8-for-20) from three on Sunday.
“Offensively, we have leveled up, especially since I have been here,” Johnson said. “You’ve got Paul taking the lead, (Young) was new last year. The freshmen have been good. Everybody has been stepping up and it’s just translating now. We have put in the work and it’s paying off.”
“Shoutout to our coaches, because I think we’ve got one of the best player development programs in the country,” Harper said. “They get us in the gym everyday and shoutout to our players too because we have a great work ethic. When I got here, it was rough at the beginning. The offense was rough, everybody said it was rough and everybody knew it was rough. Over the years, we have just trusted each other, we trusted the coaches and we trusted the gym. It finally shows now.
Beating Illinois at its Own Game
Illinois entered Sunday outrebounding opponents by a margin of 17 per game while Rutgers came in plus-10. Even with Illinois shooting a higher percentage from the field, Rutgers outrebounded the Illini, 35-34 on the game.
“I’m most excited that we outrebounded them,” Pikiell said. “That and we took care of the ball. Those were two keys. Myles was really good and he continues to be really good. And we need him to be.
“We harped on it, my staff did a good job preparing the guys and we went head-to-head with them on the backboards. We pride ourselves on being a good rebounding team too.”
Opening Eyes, Just Not Their Own
With Sunday’s statement win over an Illinois squad picked by many to win the Big Ten, Rutgers is set to make another climb in the national rankings. The No. 19 ranking was the highest for the program since 1978-79.
“We don’t spend a lot of time on that stuff,” “In our league, you’re always playing against ranked teams so we don’t spend a lot of time talking about those expectations. We talk abot what we need to do the next game. I tell the guys all the time, ‘Don’t read the clippings.’ They have been very mature about it.”
“We expect to be here,” Harper said. “We hold ourselves to a high standard at practice at a high standard. We just want to keep going 1-0 every day.”