Rutgers has emphasized that it’s learned from its struggles over the course of the season, that some of the surprising losses it suffered provided some of its most valuable lessons.
Perhaps the biggest — winning in the Big Ten at home or on the road requires a complete, 40-minute performance. Slow starts can be costly.
The Scarlet Knights showed just how far they’ve come on Saturday.
Steve Pikiell’s team got off to a quick start on the way to a strong, all-around performance to beat No. 14 Wisconsin, 73-65, at Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
For the first time in program history, Rutgers has beaten a ranked opponent in three consecutive games as it continues to improve its NCAA Tournament resume.
Ron Harper Jr. finished with a team-high 21 points on 6-of-13 shooting (3-of-6 from the perimeter) with six rebounds and two assists.
Paul Mulcahy finished with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Cliff Omoruyi had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Rutgers shot 51 percent from the field and went 7-of-12 from the perimeter.
Tyler Wahl led the Badgers with 23 points, but the Scarlet Knights shut down Wisconsin’s leading scorers.
Badgers sophomore guard Johnny Davis finished with 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting and was 0-of-3 from the perimeter. Senior guard Brad Davison, one of the top shooters in the Big Ten, had 13 points on 3-of-13 shooting, 1-of-9 from the perimeter.
Wisconsin was just 4-of-19 from the three-point line.
Rutgers held a nine-point lead at one point in the first half, but Wisconsin reeled off a 13-3 run to briefly take the lead. The Badgers struggled from the free-throw line before halftime, going just 7-of-15. The Scarlet Knights ultimately went into the break up 38-35 with Baker and Harper combining for 27 points.
Mulcahy was outstanding in the second half when he scored 13 of his points, including a big three-pointer from the right wing following a Baker steal that put Rutgers up 62-60.
The guard from Bayonne then assisted on an Omoruyi dunk that gave the Scarlet Knights a six-point lead with 1:33 to go.
It was Rutgers’ game from there.
1. Fast start was crucial
In many of their tough losses, Rutgers put itself in poor position early, digging itself into a hole it had to climb out of.
Too often, the Scarlet Knights couldn’t do it.
But with Baker and Harper draining shots early, Rutgers put Wisconsin in a hole and took control of the game.
Most importantly, the Scarlet Knights’ defense completely stifled the Badgers’ offense from the start. It never let up.
2. Caleb McConnell stellar defensively… again
Rutgers could not have asked for much more from McConnell, who’s given the Scarlet Knights superb defense all season long.
That continued Saturday. McConnell completely limited Davis, one of the best scorers in the country who entered the day averaging 20.2 points per game. Davis had just five points in the entire first half and didn’t score until 16 minutes into the game.
McConnell finished with six steals. He was making tons of hustle plays, diving all over the floor in the process. It was his third game in a row with at least four steals.
3. Big road win
Rutgers’ ability to get a win like this way away from Jersey Mike’s Arena cannot be overstated.
The Scarlet Knights have struggled on the road all season, too often looking like a different team away from the raucous environment in Piscataway.
That wasn’t the case on this day. They played with energy from the start.
Rutgers not only needed Quad 1 victories, but it needed a solid road victory to boost its resume.
The Scarlet Knights achieved both on Saturday.
Steve Pikiell on McConnell’s defense: “Caleb’s a good player. You see how important he is too. He does a lot of things that don’t show up, you see some of the things that show up in the box score. But the fact that he always wants the best player is really comforting for a coach.”
Harper on what’s ahead: “We’ve still got so much more to accomplish. Like I tell these guys, every time we step on the court it’s a great opportunity. We’re going through a little bit of a gauntlet right now. We’re playing a lot of teams in the upper half of the Big Ten and we like that. We like going into games and being the underdog. When everybody least expects it, we like coming out on top.”
Pikiell on winning in the Big Ten: “The league is tough. You’ve got to try to figure it out. It’s a 40-minute league. Very few games are decided by more than a couple possessions. You’ve got to be able to make those plays. Proud of our guys. You’ve got to be able to make free throws, you’ve got to do well on both ends of the floor, it’s not just on the defensive end in order to beat all those ranked teams.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism