For the first time since the Garden State Hardwood Classic began back in 2014, the trophy will be residing in Piscataway.
Thanks to a 22-point performance from junior guard Corey Sanders and multiple second-half runs, the Scarlet Knights fought their way to a 71-65 win over the No. 15 Seton Hall Pirates on Saturday afternoon at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
Saturday’s loss will go down as a game of missed opportunities for the Pirates, as there were many occasions where Seton Hall could have put Rutgers away, but instead allowed them to get back into the game. The Pirates led by as much as 13 with 8:15 left in the first half, and all told led for just over 34 of the 40 minutes.
“A lot of things went their way in the second half,” Seton Hall senior forward Ismael Sanogo said following the loss. “They wanted it more at the end, they got most of the 50-50 balls, and they out-rebounded us. We just have to bounce back and forget about it.”
Things started smoothly for Seton Hall, as they took a 19-10 lead into the under-12 timeout. That lead expanded to 31-18 with a little over four minutes remaining in the first half. At that point, with Seton Hall in command, head coach Kevin Willard went to his bench to give the starters a break. The strategy did not pay off, as Rutgers got back into the game with four Seton Hall substitutes on the court.
Despite Rutgers cutting into the lead, Seton Hall still held a 42-32 lead heading into halftime. It was an intense first half, with constant talking going back-and-forth between the two rivals.
“It’s a rivalry game, that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Sanogo said. “We’re not out there to be friends; we’re not out there to be buddy-buddy. I don’t want to be friends with these guys at the end of the day; I don’t like anybody on their team, that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
By the under-16 timeout, the Pirates held a 49-41 lead; continuing to keep the Scarlet Knights at an arm’s length away. Willard again made the decision to go to his bench to spell the starters and Rutgers capitalized, ripping off an 11-1 run to even the score at 52.
“I have a lot of confidence in my bench and I’ll keep going to them,” Willard said. “You can’t play five guys for 40 minutes.”
Once Rutgers knotted things up, it was nip-and-tuck down the stretch as both teams continued to go at it. The Pirates went on a 9-0 run to open up a 63-54 lead with 6:01 left in regulation thanks to four straight points from Sanogo, who turned in an excellent performance with 10 points, four rebounds and five blocks.
Rutgers responded by going on a run of their own and tying things up at 63 with a little under three minutes left to play; the latest example of Seton Hall not being able to finish off the Scarlet Knights.
From that point on, Sanders took over for Rutgers, hitting two straight mid-range jump shots to give Rutgers a 67-63 lead; a lead that they would not relinquish over the final two minutes of the game.
Seton Hall had a chance to tie the game at 68 with nine seconds left, but the shot from Myles Powell, who led Seton Hall with 18 points on the day, rimmed out. Rutgers’ Mike Williams secured the rebound, along with the victory, for a Rutgers team that finished the game on a 17-2 run.
In the loss, Angel Delgado turned in another monster performance on the glass, coming down with 21 rebounds. Desi Rodriguez added 15 points for a Seton Hall team that shot 41 percent from the field against a stout Rutgers defense.
Saturday’s loss will serve as the latest lesson for the Pirates, as they failed to put away Rutgers when they had the chance to do so on multiple occasions.
“We had them right where we wanted them in the first half and going into the second half, I think we got too complacent,” Powell said. “Coming out in the second half, we didn’t expect them to hit; their first hit knocked us off our feet.”
“When you have the enemy down and your foot on their neck, you have to keep your foot on their neck and crush it,” Sanogo said. “Don’t let them breathe and that’s exactly what we did. We let them breathe.”
The Pirates first step toward responding will be two home contests next week against Wagner and Manhattan on Dec. 20 and 23, followed by the curtain-raiser for Big East play versus Creighton on Dec. 28.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.