Geo Baker (0) shoots over Wisconsin for two of his 22 points as Rutgers downed Badgers Wednesday. (Photo by Andrew Mills/NJ Advance Media)
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Out with the old, in with the...old?
Rutgers paid tribute to its past Wednesday night with a throwback jersey that harkened back to the glory days of the State University of New Jersey’s basketball prime, the era of Phil Sellers and Eddie Jordan, in his first line of work for the Scarlet Knights. Another homage was conducted in the 40 minutes that followed, in the form of a 72-65 victory over Wisconsin — the third straight against the Badgers at the RAC since joining the Big Ten Conference — that could be described as equal parts physical, aggressive, and smashmouth.
“Our guys had a lot on their plate this week,” Steve Pikiell reflected as Rutgers (7-3, 1-1 Big Ten) earned a split of its first two conference games in the midst of final exam week. “Everybody that checked into the game really helped us. I thought they were locked in today and I thought we were swarming. We have to play like that.”
The aggression exhibited by Rutgers just several days removed from a pair of hard-fought losses against Pitt and Michigan State was unleashed from the start, when the Scarlet Knights hit three straight three-pointers to score the game’s first nine points and force Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard into a timeout less than three minutes into the proceedings. It remained on display throughout the first half, even as Wisconsin appeared to steal all the momentum on the way into the locker room, scoring the last nine points before the intermission and taking a one-point halftime lead when Trevor Anderson beat the buzzer.
“That’s something that we were really preaching after the Michigan State game,” Geo Baker shared, citing the points of emphasis between Sunday and Wednesday. “Guys were a little bit down, and we fought well in that game, too, but we’re the underdogs in this league. We were picked twelfth in this league. No one picked us first, second, top five. No one expects us to go to the tournament, so we have to be the hungriest in this league. We had an opportunity, and we took advantage of it.”
“I thought when we came back out, we responded well to that,” Pikiell added, referencing Rutgers’ 9-3 run out of the gate to seize control in the second half. “We knew the game was going to be a war. That’s how they play. We were right where we needed to be to win the game in the second half.”
Even when it looked like Wisconsin would restore order, Rutgers counterpunched. The Badgers pulled within three points with two minutes remaining, only for Myles Johnson and Caleb McConnell to spearhead a 7-1 run that ultimately decided the game and validate Pikiell’s belief that each member of his eleven-man rotation is capable of starting, or making a significant impact.
“I think it’s really important,” he said, underscoring its even greater value Saturday afternoon, when Seton Hall comes to town for a heated battle where in-state bragging rights are on the line. I love our bench, and I think our bench has given us a real energy and a real lift. Every guy — Paul (Mulcahy) comes in, he could pass the ball and rebound, made some big plays, Caleb now, Shaq (Carter) has been locked in, Jacob Young gives us a different dimension — I really like our bench.”
Given both the circumstances and schedule, the take-no-prisoners approach — the old-school mentality was exactly what was necessitated to win Wednesday, and Rutgers’ center openly stated such.
“This was a ‘need-it’ game,” Johnson candidly admitted with regard to what was at stake with Seton Hall on the horizon. “We needed it, and we got it.”
Just like old times.