January 19, 2019 | ° F

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Photo by Declan Intindola |

The Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) was electric Friday night for the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s Big Ten opener against No. 9/8 Michigan State, and the matchup didn’t disappoint, as things were tight for a majority of the game.

But, the Scarlet Knights (5-2, 0-1) were unable to capture their second straight upset after defeating Miami on the road Wednesday night. The Spartans (6-2, 1-0) took a slim 2-point lead into halftime but grew their lead to as large as 10 through the first 8 minutes of the second half and rode that lead to an eventual 78-67 win at the RAC.

“We obviously played an elite team with one day to prepare. Played hard. You have to be elite playing that team. They’re the most physical team in the league,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “…They’re well coached, obviously (Tom Izzo) is a hall of fame coach with good players and he does a great job, so I’m going to give them credit.”

Despite having less than 48 hours to prepare for the game after landing back in New Jersey at 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, the team flew out the gates after tipoff. 

Rutgers came out hot to start the game, taking leads of 7-2 and 18-10 through the first five minutes of play, but Michigan State closed those margins quickly and took its first lead of the night with 11:13 to play in the half. The Spartans surged on a 9-0 run to make it 19-18, but junior forward Eugene Omoruyi ended the Knights’ scoreless streak and hit a straight away 3 to get the lead back and begin a back and forth affair between the interconference foes.

A rebound and outlet pass from junior forward Issa Thiam led to a breakaway dunk from sophomore guard Peter Kiss that had the crowd roaring as the lead was back up to 4 for Rutgers, but the pesky Michigan State offense kept coming back.

Things seemed to change after halftime. A 3 from Kiss opened up the second half for the Knights, but the Spartans went on another 9-0 run to break things open at 49-40 and held onto the lead for good. 

Rutgers closed the gap to just 6 points at 63-57 with a little more than 5 minutes to play, but Michigan State kept its foot on the gas and pulled away again late. 

Overall it was a poor shooting night for the Knights from the field, which finished the game off with a 36.9 shooting percentage (24-65) — including a slightly worse percentage from beyond the arc at 30.8 percent (8-26). 

Though Rutgers displayed a valiant effort as a team, sophomore guard Geo Baker struggled to lead the team from a shooting perspective, scoring 10 points on just 4-13 shooting. Baker also got into early foul trouble and did not play in the final 9.5 minutes of the first half because of it. 

“I didn’t really notice anything about the whistles. I just think we played hard and came up a little short,” Baker said. “… I don’t think (being subbed out in the first half) made me rusty, I think it might’ve helped me evaluate the game a little bit, just see things from a different perspective, but yeah, I’ve got to stay out of foul trouble.”

Fouls were a problem for the team as a whole in this one, as the Knights sent the Spartans to the line to take 25 free throw attempts, of which they hit 19. Baker, Omoruyi, graduate student center Shaquille Doorson and freshman center Myles Johnson each had two fouls in the first half, which left Pikiell in a bind to create some new lineups and keep some players from the bench out for longer than expected.

Freshman guard Caleb McConnell came in for Baker and used his 11 minutes of action efficiently, scoring 7 points on 2-3 shooting and grabbing a rebound as well. 

“I had to come in and step up and get good minutes,” McConnell said after the loss. “Just gotta keep working hard and keep stepping up in big moments like today.”

Omoruyi finished the game as the team high-scorer and rebounder with 16 points and 11 rebounds to give him another double-double this season. Omoruyi also had one of the team’s three steals on the night.

Guard Cassius Winston and forward Nick Ward led the way for Michigan State Friday night, scoring 22 and 20 points each, respectively. The Spartans also won the rebounding battle, 40-36, thanks to the likes of forwards Kenny Goins (9) and Xavier Tillman (8).

Rutgers now heads on the road again to battle another Big Ten foe in No. 22 Wisconsin in what looks to be the team’s toughest game to date. The Knights will play their next three games on the road before returning to the RAC on Dec. 22.

The Badgers come into tonight’s matchup riding a 2-game win streak, including a 72-66 victory over No. 14 Iowa after being down by 8 points with less than 13 minutes to play. 

Guard D’Mitrik Trice and forward Ethan Happ lead Wisconsin in scoring in the early season with matching 17.4 points per game numbers. Happ also leads the Badgers with 11.6 rebounds per game and is second in blocks with 15, so far. 

The last time these two sides faced off, Rutgers defeated Wisconsin at the RAC, 64-60, for its first Big Ten win of the 2017-2018 season.

“I really appreciated where this program is coming, it’s good for the Big Ten and it’s good for us. The fans tonight were awesome. (Pikiell) is building something here,” Izzo said.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @cgreen204 and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Coby Green

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