Ron Harper’s 25 points led all scorers as Rutgers overpowered NJIT Tuesday. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The night began amid a much-hyped protest of Rutgers’ football program and its imminent future.
It ended with a convincing reminder that the men’s basketball program at the state university of New Jersey is on steady ground, its bright future yet unchallenged.
As a handful of fans outside the RAC demonstrated their discontent over Greg Schiano’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for Rutgers’ head football coaching vacancy Tuesday night, the Scarlet Knights were nothing but unified on the hardwood, seizing control over NJIT late in the first half with a 21-4 run en route to a decisive 85-58 victory over the visiting Highlanders.
“Everyone contributed,” head coach Steve Pikiell said of a team effort in which Rutgers (5-1) used a dominant first half from Myles Johnson (17 points, 11 rebounds) and an efficient second stanza from Ron Harper, Jr., who finished with 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting to pull away to the commanding triumph. “I just like the way this team is starting to defend and play together. It was Myles’ night tonight. Every night, somebody different’s chipping in, and I love that.”
“We were able to put them away with our defense today,” Harper added. “After their quick start, we went into the huddle and said that we needed to stick to our principles. That defense helped us put them away.”
After the Scarlet Knights allowed NJIT to connect on six of its first nine shots to begin the game, the stingy and aggressive defense for which Pikiell’s teams have come to be known tightened the screws, clamping down to concede only three field goals for the duration of the opening half and ultimately holding the Highlanders to just 35 percent shooting from the floor while holding Zach Cooks — the nation’s fifth-leading scorer entering Tuesday’s action — to just 10 points on a 3-for-15 effort.
“I didn’t like our detail,” a candid Pikiell reflected of the initial minutes. “I think we pushed it up, we got the ball running up and down, we made some adjustments not to get backdoored. Our guys took the game plan and executed it. We have length, we have some speed. Whenever you can keep throwing bodies at guys — and fresh bodies — I think it makes it difficult.”
With the outcome decided early in the second half, a small group of fans took to chanting for Schiano and criticizing athletic director Pat Hobbs — who was in attendance — for not bringing the beloved former football coach back to the program he turned around in the 2000s. Although Hobbs is in no danger, his highest-profile coaching hire used his postgame press conference for an impassioned defense of his boss.
“Pat Hobbs is, by far, the best I’ve ever worked with,” Pikiell proclaimed. “He’s done so many things in my three years here for Rutgers. I think what people forget about is all the great things, and we’re so into the negative. This stuff needs to stop.”
“This guy’s great and he’s a great person. He’s done a great job, and he’s going to go down as one of the best athletic directors Rutgers has ever had. I hope you print that and quote me on it, and understand the job that he has done in the last four years. I’m honored to be here, and I’m honored to work under a guy like Pat Hobbs. I’ll go to war with him any day of the week.”
Back on the basketball court, Rutgers’ first game since last Wednesday’s win over Stephen F. Austin, who later defeated top-ranked Duke about two hours after the Scarlet Knights walked off the floor, the response heading into a Friday matinee against UMass and the team’s first true road trip — to Pittsburgh and Michigan State — earned positive reviews from the man charged with spearheading the turnaround.
“We’ve got a couple days just to prepare for what’s ahead,” said Pikiell. “We’ve got a quick turnaround here coming up with UMass. Anytime we get some days off, we can put in some new actions, we can do some different things defensively. We had some good practices leading up to this, and I think our guys are locked in.”