Corey Sanders exults after Rutgers defeated Minnesota to advance in Big Ten Tournament. (Photo by Newsday)
By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)
NEW YORK -- Survive and advance.
In a bit of irony, the late Jim Valvano, a Rutgers graduate, coined that popular phrase. The Scarlet Knights earned another day Wednesday night, defeating Minnesota, 65-54, in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Back in December, the Scarlet Knights opened their Big Ten season facing the Golden Gophers on the road. They came out with an 89-67 defeat. To head coach Steve Pikiell, the opposition was secondary to the fact his Rutgers team would compete. The postseason tournament, in Pikiell’s estimation, is a new season. Everyone is 0-0.
Pikiell could also draw on the fact of a different Minnesota lining up on the Garden floor. That game back in December feels like a few years ago, not months.
As has happened so many times this season, Rutgers (14-18) started slowly, scoring first on a Corey Sanders drive nearly three minutes into the contest. At the 16-minute media timeout, they had four points. That slow offensive start did not make a difference in the early going. The Golden Gophers had not scored and would not dent the scoreboard until Nate Mason hit two free throws just out of that timeout.
Richard Pitino implored his Minnesota team to open it up and push the pace. Pikiell was content with using clock and staying in a half court environment. The game was evenly contested a good portion of the opening half. Rutgers had opportunities to build a lead. Opportunities were lost, as shots at the rim and free throws were missed. Defense and rebounding was the staple for the Scarlet Knights, as they consistently limited Minnesota (15-17) to one shot.
Pikiell preaches and knows the value of good defense. The Rutgers mentor knows shots will eventually fall, but the one constant you can control is on the defensive end. Eventually, those shots did fall. Sanders led the Scarlet Knights with 15 points at halftime, helping his team build a 34-27 lead at the break. The second chance points, finally dropping, were 13-0 in Rutgers’ favor. The numbers that stood out, though, were 8-of-27 shooting by Minnesota, including 2-of-10 from long distance.
Rutgers led for most of the second half. Minnesota, to their credit, was not about to go away. Each time, Sanders answered with a key shot or a big play that kept the momentum in Rutgers’ favor.
“He made shots," Pikiell said, “but he defended just as well.”
A Sanders three pushed the Rutgers lead back at five with just under six minutes to play. Pikiell turned to the scarlet-clad crowd behind him, imploring them to be heard loud and clear. Those final minutes may have conjured up thoughts among the Rutgers faithful, near-misses against Michigan State, or Purdue at home. On this night, there was not to be a near-miss of any sort. For the second straight year, Rutgers; as a No. 14 seed, earned a first round win.
“Fourteen is a number,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t mean much, because this group of guys goes after it every night.”
Sanders led all scorers with 23 points. Mike Williams added 12.
“Our game plan was to concentrate on (Nate) Mason and (Jordan) Murphy,” Pikiell said. “Our guys bought into it and got the job done.”
“The build is always tough,” he added, addressing the challenge of raising the Rutgers program back from the doldrums in which it currently exists. “We had the hardest schedule in the league per KenPom, and you all like to quote KenPom. We had obstacles, and each time, our guys fought through it. This was a team win where everyone chipped in. We emphasized rebounding and we did the job. It is never easy. We are in the best league in the country with the best coaches. You go through tough times, then when something like this happens, you enjoy it. All part of the build.”
Asked about the next opponent, Indiana, Pikiell could only laugh, saying, “we just won five minutes ago and it’s off to the next game.”
In seriousness he praised the Hoosiers and work of coach Archie Miller. Once again, the reference came back to tonight’s special achievement.
“I feel good about our guys,” Pikiell said. “This is who we are. We keep fighting. This is all part of growing the program, and I am confident in our build.”