Buckeye Basketball: OSU falls to Rutgers in Big Ten tournament, await postseason fate
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rutgers players saw the message loud and clear on the whiteboard in their locker room that read, "New Season," and they heard their first-year coach harp about never before winning a game in the Big Ten Tournament.
Remembering and forgetting the past at the same time worked wonders Wednesday night as 14th-seeded Rutgers beat 11th-seeded Ohio State 66-57 in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. In the Scarlet Knights' third season in the conference, it picked up its first tournament victory and won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time.
It was a seminal moment in coach Steve Pikiell's efforts to build the Rutgers program after years of struggles. Nigel Johnson scored 21 points and Rutgers (15-17) outrebounded Ohio State 47-31 to overcome a rough shooting performance to give the school this moment and a matchup with NCAA Tournament-bound Northwestern.
"We wanted to be the first team to get the Big Ten Tournament win," said Johnson, who was 5 for 11 from the floor and made all eight of his free throws. "Maybe we're going to be the team that's remembered 10, 20 years down the line"
Rutgers shot 37.1 percent and endured a 3 ½ minute scoring drought in the second half. But Deshawn Freeman, who had 10 points, said the huge rebounding discrepancy was a matter of toughness against a bigger Buckeyes team that beat Rutgers earlier this season.
That previous loss to Ohio State and others, including a six-game skid that ended with a victory Saturday against Illinois, taught Rutgers what it took to win tight games. Pikiell figured his team needed to play a perfect 40 minutes to win, but at the very least it couldn't turn the ball over or miss free throws.
Rutgers committed just four turnovers in the second half, holding Ohio State without a field goal for the final 5:43, and was 13 of 19 from the line.
"We don't have a huge margin for error," Pikiell said. "Every free throw is big. Every turnover is big."
Ohio State (17-15) hasn't had much of one either and will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. Jae'Sean Tate had 18 points, but he and coach Thad Matta couldn't explain what went wrong down the stretch.
"Just the look on our guys' faces in timeouts," Matta said. "I'm not sure our minds were where we needed to be to compete in this basketball game."
Matta, who got a vote of confidence from athletic director Gene Smith earlier Wednesday, called that ridiculous and said it was sad that sports have come to that point.
Rutgers: Had already doubled its win total after going 7-25 in the final season with Eddie Jordan, and players realize that progress is being made and winning isn't easy. "To turn a program around, you're not just going to do it overnight," Johnson said.
Ohio State: It's reflection time in Columbus after another disappointing season. It's the first time in coach Matta's career that he hasn't reached 20 victories in a season, including his previous 12 at Ohio State, three at Xavier and one at Butler.
Ohio State's JaQuan Lyle said his team has had 20 or 30 bad practices this season, and it showed in another loss.
"Do we actually care about this program, this university, the fans and each other? Me, included," Lyle said. "I feel like at times we don't play with the heart and passion like we should. I think that's the biggest thing."
Rutgers: Faces sixth-seeded Northwestern in the late game Thursday night for the chance to play Maryland in the quarterfinals Friday. Rutgers lost both meetings this season with Northwestern, which is NCAA Tournament-bound for the first time in school history.