NEW YORK — It wasn’t supposed to end this way for IU men’s basketball.
No team enters the Big Ten Tournament expecting to lose its first game, but the Hoosiers certainly couldn’t have imagined crashing out in their opening contest against the last-place Rutgers team they beat handily one month ago.
But there sat the Hoosiers in their locker room inside Madison Square Garden after Thursday night’s 76-69 defeat against the Scarlet Knights, stunned to near-silence.
Senior guard Josh Newkirk’s message to IU fans was simple.
“I apologize,” Newkirk said. “We should have came ready. Being more prepared when they made their little run. It hurts for us to lose this way.”
In the early going, it sure seemed as though IU would coast its way past Rutgers again on its way to a meeting with rival Purdue on Friday night.
The Hoosiers led 17-3 after the game’s first eight minutes. The Scarlet Knights could do nothing right, until they could do nothing wrong.
It was a 24-8 lead for IU when Rutgers senior forward DeShawn Freeman stepped up the post dominance he’d already established in the early going. He scored layups on consecutive possessions to bring Rutgers within 12 before IU freshman guard Al Durham hit two free throws with 5:46 until halftime.
From there, Rutgers ran away with the rest of the first half.
IU Coach Archie Miller called one timeout in an effort to stop the bleeding, but the Scarlet Knights delivered a 17-2 run by the time halftime arrived.
IU trailed 29-28 at the break, and Freeman had scored 11 of his 15 points in the opening half.
“I thought DeShawn Freeman really hurt us throughout the game with his ability to play off the lane and drive,” Miller said.
After halftime, it was a different Scarlet Knight who burned IU. Shots failed to fall for IU in similar fashion to when the early lead slipped away, while Rutgers junior guard Corey Sanders carried his team through any run the Hoosiers could muster.
Nearly half of IU’s second-half points came at the free throw line. Twenty made free throws made up for the 33 percent shooting that prevented IU from retaking the lead at any point in the second half.
When the Hoosiers did pull within one point with 6:51 left in the game, it was Sanders who provided an immediate response.
Sanders’ layup put Rutgers back up by three points, and he scored 12 points in the final six minutes to bury IU. Against the Hoosiers on Feb. 5, Sanders struggled his way to nine points on 1-11 shooting. On Friday night, Sanders had no such issues getting his shot to fall.
“Once he started getting going, it was hard to control it,” IU sophomore guard Devonte Green said of Sanders. “I thought we did a solid job contesting his shots, and he was just hot.”
His game-high 28 points included a repertoire of contested fadeaways and fastbreak dunks, with each one seeming to push the nail further into IU’s coffin. Miller credited Rutgers for keeping Sanders isolated on offense throughout the game and allowing him to work one-on-one against IU defenders.
Whatever the strategy Rutgers employed, it worked.
The Hoosiers finished their season at 16-15, and Miller left little optimism for any postseason berth when he spoke at his postgame press conference.
A roller coaster season ended with a rollercoaster game. Miller said the disappointment will obviously sting, but he threw no one under the bus when wrapping up the year.
“They gave everything they had all season long through a lot of ups and downs,” Miller said of his team. “Saw a lot of guys grow throughout the course of the year and do some things that a lot of people probably didn’t anticipate. From that standpoint, I’m proud of them.”
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