NCAA Basketball

Rutgers bids for season sweep of No. 5 Purdue

If anyone knows how dangerous Rutgers is when facing a Top 25 team, it's Purdue.

After all, the Boilermakers became the first of five ranked teams toppled by the Scarlet Knights when Ron Harper hit a running 3-pointer from just inside midcourt at the buzzer on Dec. 9 to seal a 70-68 upset in Piscataway, N.J.

Rutgers has added four more Top 25 wins in succession to bolster its case for a second straight NCAA Tournament berth. The Knights could join the Associated Press poll on Monday if they can beat No. 5 Purdue on Sunday in West Lafayette, Ind.

But it might have to do it without Harper, who injured his left (non-shooting) hand late in Wednesday night's 70-59 defeat of No. 12 Illinois. The Scarlet Knights (16-9, 10-5 Big Ten) said on Thursday that Harper's status was "day-to-day."

With or without Harper, however, Rutgers is playing the type of defense that leads to significant winning streaks, no matter the level of competition. It never trailed against Illinois, leading by as many as 23 in the second half and limited the high-powered Fighting Illini to 37.9 percent shooting.

There was also this stat: The Scarlet Knights dominated Illinois, which only has one of the best rebounders in the nation in 7-1 center Kofi Cockburn, 46-28 on the boards.

"I think they're all defending and playing hard and that's what we need to do," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "It's a blue-collar group and they play that way but they practice well every day. I told you guys I like this team ... they share the game the right way."

Harper's 16 points led four Rutgers players in double figures against Illinois, while Clifford Omoruyi gave as good as he got inside against Cockburn with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Paul Mulcahy chipped in 13 points and seven assists.

Meanwhile, Purdue (23-4, 12-4) stayed in first place in the Big Ten Wednesday night with a tougher-than-expected 70-64 win at Northwestern. The Boilermakers overcame 14 turnovers and 45.3 percent shooting -- they normally make 50.2 percent from the field -- by holding the Wildcats to 35.0 percent shooting and earning a 39-34 advantage on the boards.

Zach Edey collected 14 points and eight rebounds for Purdue, while Mason Gillis and Eric Hunter Jr. each added 11 points. That helped make up for off-nights by Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams, who combined for just 12 points, about 17 under their average.

Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said a stretch of nine games in 21 days because of COVID-19 postponements from earlier in the season took its toll on his squad.

"It catches up to you. You just don't talk about it as a coach," he said. "You try to do things to help them. You know, have shorter practices, challenge them, try to keep them on edge. ... It's not all physical. The mental piece is so important."

The schedule calms a bit after this one for Purdue as it plays just three games for the regular season's remainder. But two of them are at Michigan State and Wisconsin, and the third is a home date with Indiana.

--Field Level Media

Updated February 19, 2022

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