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(Photo by Paul Mecca - JSN)

Rutgers Basketball Rounds Into Form With Winning Streak

Early in the college basketball season, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were largely inconsistent, with three losses to largely inferior teams. However, Steve Pikiell responded to his critics by saying that this year's team was the best he'd ever coached.

The Scarlet Knights would continue to be an enigma after that statement. After a gutsy win over Clemson, they were blown out by Illinois. This was followed by the greatest win in program history against (at the time) No. 1 Purdue, but Rutgers followed that up with a lifeless performance against Seton Hall in a game that was far more lopsided than the score indicated.

But after a long layoff due to nationwide COVID-19 outbreaks, the Scarlet Knights have begun to back up the words of their coach. Since returning to action, they have won four straight games.

The first two wins weren't exactly eye popping, as they were against vastly inferior opponents in Maine and Central Connecticut; however, Rutgers was uncharacteristically struggling against weaker, non-conference teams early in the season, so it was refreshing to see them firmly take care of business.

But the next two wins were a far different story, with the Scarlet Knights playing conference opponents for the rest of the season.

The third straight win was a historic one, as Rutgers finally overcame their boogeyman in the Michigan Wolverines, who had a perfect 14-0 record against them entering the game. Although the margin of victory was only eight, the game wasn't nearly as close as it looked as the Scarlet Knights dominated the Wolverines.

Finally, the fourth straight victory on Saturday against Nebraska was an outright bludgeoning. Although Nebraska is widely considered the weakest opponent in the Big Ten, Rutgers once again took care of business against a weak opponent by putting up 93 points, their most ever in regulation in a Big Ten game.

But no matter the opponent's strength, Rutgers is getting hot at the right time. As conference play enters full swing, every bit of momentum matters.

December 30, 2021: vs. Maine Black Bears

After an embarrassing beatdown against their rivals from South Orange, the Scarlet Knights entered a long layoff due to COVID-19. During that 18-day span, a home game against Rider was canceled and another home game against Central Connecticut was rescheduled for New Year's Day.

It didn't take long for Rutgers to shake the rust off.

The Scarlet Knights played a complete game against Maine at Jersey Mike's Arena, carrying a 12-point halftime lead and cruising to an 80-64 victory. They nailed 10 three-pointers on 20 attempts beyond the arc, sunk 16 free throws as opposed to seven for Maine, and led by as much as 20 points.

Maine did have some strong individual performances; LeChaun DuHart had a game-high 22 points and Ata Turgut scored 15 off the bench. But they were Maine's only players to post double figures in points. Rutgers, on the other hand, had four.

Ron Harper Jr. led the charge for the Scarlet Knights with 19 points and seven rebounds, but he was far from the only bright spot. Caleb McConnell had 13 points, while Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy had 14 points each. Omoruyi grabbed a game-high eight rebounds, while Mulcahy nailed all four of his three-point attempts.

Finally, Geo Baker, who recovered from a hamstring injury during the long layoff, scored nine points, all of them coming from three-pointers, and dished out a game-high five assists.

January 1, 2022: vs. Central Connecticut Blue Devils

After enjoying the New Year festivities, the Scarlet Knights went right back to the court for their first game of 2022. They would go up against Central Connecticut in another Piscataway showdown, making up a game that was originally scheduled for December 23, 2021.

Rutgers' play would improve even further, as they held an astonishing 44-14 lead by halftime. The end result was another laugher, this time by the score of 79-48. The Scarlet Knights led by as much as 47 points.

Although Rutgers finished the game by making only half of their shots (going 35-for-70), the defense on the other end of the court was downright suffocating. Central Connecticut attempted 55 field goals; only 15 fell through the hoop. Rutgers additionally had 10 blocks and nine steals as a team.

Surprisingly, Ron Harper Jr. was a non-factor in the win, with only two points and three rebounds in a season-low 18 minutes.

Cliff Omoruyi was the main catalyst for Rutgers; the sophomore continued his breakout campaign with 19 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double. Paul Mulcahy scored eight points and dished out eight assists, while Geo Baker scored 11 points with seven assists. Aundre Hyatt scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds off the bench.

The only bright spots for Central Connecticut were Stephane Ayangma and Joe Ostrowsky, who each had 12 points. The former also had 10 rebounds for a double-double.

January 4, 2022: vs. Michigan Wolverines

For the third game in a four-game homestand, Rutgers started the Big Ten gauntlet that will last the remainder of the season. The first of those opponents was their eternal tormenters in the Michigan Wolverines, who had a perfect 14-0 record against the Scarlet Knights. Two of their wins against Rutgers were among the most devastating in Scarlet Knights history, which were the 2004 NIT Championship Game and the 1976 National Semifinal that ruined Rutgers' bid for a perfect season and a National Championship between two undefeated teams.

Rutgers was due for a win against the Wolverines, and Tuesday would finally be the night.

Although Michigan was shorthanded with four of their key reserves unavailable, the Scarlet Knights never let their foot off the gas. In a gritty game with several high-scoring performances from both sides, Rutgers got the monkey off their back and stood up to their 87-year old bully, 75-67.

Michigan had four players reach double-digit points. Eli Brooks scored 11 points, Caleb Houstan scored 12, Moussa Diabate scored 15, and Hunter Dickinson had a spectacular game with 25 points.

But the dynamic duo of Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. was too much for the Wolverines. Baker scored a jaw-dropping 27 points and went 10-for-15 shooting. Harper Jr. added 20 points and nailed five three-pointers on six attempts beyond the arc.

Cliff Omoruyi, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy were all integral to the historic victory as well. Omoruyi, despite only scoring four points, led all players with 12 rebounds. Mulcahy had seven points and seven assists, while McConnell did a little bit of everything with nine points, four assists and five rebounds.

Rutgers' key to victory was three-point shooting. They had 11 threes on 23 attempts, a season best. Michigan, on the other hand, made only three shots beyond the arc on 15 attempts.

The historic win was marred by a scuffle as time ran out, as multiple Michigan teammates held back Moussa Diabate, who fouled out of the game beforehand.

Saturday: vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers

On Saturday, Rutgers finally completed their four-game homestand against Nebraska.

To say the Scarlet Knights dominated would be an understatement.

With five double-digit scorers, 10 three-pointers as a team, and a 92.9 free throw percentage (13-for-14), Rutgers coasted to a 93-65 win. The 93 points are a season high.

Ron Harper Jr. followed up his 20-point performance against Michigan with a monstrous 29 points. Cliff Omoruyi and Paul Mulcahy each had 10 points, with Mulcahy adding eight assists and seven rebounds. Aundre Hyatt and Dean Reiber each had double-digit games off the bench with 13 and 10 points, respectively, while combining for 10 rebounds.

Nebraska had three players reach double figures, with Bryce McGowens leading the way with 17.

What Does This Mean for Rutgers?

Although the four straight wins haven't come against the strongest competition, Rutgers is doing something extremely important at this point of the season: building momentum. As they continue to mold into form, the competition continues to get stronger, so the complete efforts from top to bottom are especially valuable. If Rutgers can play like this against the strongest teams in the Big Ten, they can return to the NCAA Tournament with bigger ambitions than last year.

Next Up for Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights hit the road as they play Penn State on Tuesday, and then travel to Maryland on Saturday. Both are solid, well-rounded teams, so Rutgers can't take either of them lightly if they want to build on the winning streak.

Make a Garden Statement, boys.

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