Monday's season opener was the 50th time the Columbia Lions and Rutgers Scarlet Knights have met on the hardwood. Rutgers decided it was time to tie the score with a win Monday for an overall series record of 25-25. Their last matchup, several years ago, was close, with a Rutgers 68-65 win. Monday's result was a much greater, convincing score of 75-35 - a whopping 40-point difference.
Most recent graduates, Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker, and Nathan all came back to sit courtside and watch their former teammates put on a show.
Monday's starting five consisted of Paul Mulcahy, Cliff Omoruyi, Mawot Mag, Cam Spencer, and Aundre Hyatt. The floor looked a lot different without returning standout, beloved starter, and defensive player of the year, Caleb McConnell. Head coach Steve Pikiell is hopeful that McConnell is rounding the bend and will join the rest of the team on the floor soon, but in the waiting, the defensive end is holding it down.
Fans were lined up outside Jersey Mikes Arena two hours in advance to see the men in action; Rutgers gave the packed arena what they were looking for. Every player on the roster who was healthy made it in the game for a chance to contribute to the success and that was undoubtedly impactful for the synergy and heart for the games to come.
Whatever the margin was throughout the game, the Scarlet Knights used the backboards and shared the ball. "You saw the many stats that showed even when the ball was not going in, they kept at it," Pikiell said postgame. "Last year at times, when the ball wasn't going in, they let that effect our defense, but it didn't affect us at all tonight. We stayed the course and then eventually the ball started going in because our defense stayed intact."
The game started off exciting; within the first two seconds, Omoruyi hit a shot that got the Rutgers crowd roaring and reminded them of the hype they'd been waiting for since the end of last season. Before the stands could quiet their howl, Mulcahy dropped a three and echoes filled Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers opened up aggressively, with grit and gained a foul right out of the gate. Fouls continued, but Columbia was not posing much of a threat, so there was not an overwhelming incentive to be more cautious. In the same breath, fouls were given right back to the Scarlet Knights, but the young men struggled to obtain a good amount of points off of their free throws.
Once the Scarlet Knights found their rhythm and worked out the looming nerves of the first home game of the season, the arena began to see lots of passing, communication, and confidence in their shots as the court seemingly expanded for Rutgers to seek advantage points on the floor.
The Scarlet Knights harped on turning defense to offense whenever Columbia would rush to put something up on their side of the court. Rutgers defense was applying great pressure and refusing to allow the Lions to step in and hit their shots. A classic, tone-setter of a play was put into action when Columbia made a weak pass and Spencer stole the ball, immediately sending the ball to Mag so that he could travel toward the basket and dunk something strong for the crowd.
Before absorbing a hit to the shoulder, Mulcahy seemed to be finding all the holes throughout the court and demanding his team followed his lead as he set up passes like the overwhelming play that allowed Hyatt to shoot a three-pointer to go up 15-0 at almost 15 minutes on the clock in the first half.
When the court became packed and there was no room in sight, the Scarlet Knights could count on Spencer to swoop in with a three-pointer to clear out the congestion. The boys aren't allowing any motion to slide past them defensively, but the offense had never looked more cohesive. Cliff hits a three-pointer seconds after Spencer to send the crowd into a frenzy of excitement once again.
With three minutes left on the clock in the first half, Rutgers fouled, allowing Columbia’s Brown to score two points at the free-throw line to close the gap, making the score 25-18. Another foul quickly unfolded after that, but the Scarlet Knights were graced by Columbia’s #4 and his first missed shot to allow Rutgers a six-point lead.
Mulcahy snagged his first personal foul and watched as Columbia sank both free throws. The Lions were inching their way back into the game with all efforts to tie up the score going into the half, but teamwork on Rutgers’ end was timely with beautiful passes and a heroic, rim-swinging, slam dunk by Omoruyi. This was followed by a quick sprint down the court for a two-pointer as Mag followed with a three-pointer behind his back to conclude the first half and ensure Rutgers maintained their 10-point lead.
Rutgers came out of halftime with a quick seven points and received a foul, but Mulcahy stepped up to the free-throw line after a Columbia foul and missed both shots. The team's weakness of the night is masked by so much movement and agility that these points did not hinder them in the big picture.
Spencer was a major scorer for the night as he led with fourteen points with fifteen minutes in the second half. Cam hits another three to add a dimension of offense to this game and the rest of the Scarlet Knights followed suit. Rutgers was granted an opportunity for two points as Columbia gives a foul and Mag focused up to sink both shots for a score of 50-23, leaving the Lions far behind. The Scarlet Knights started to feel free to use their momentum and pass without worry as to where to open crevices were.
Freshman, Derrick steps up to make his first bucket of the night increasing the score by a couple of points, and returned back to the sweet spot for another two points a few minutes later, continuing the scoring run of 15. The Scarlet Knights were working well with one another as they used each other’s strength to hone in on their own. Every angle of the court was available for Rutgers to utilize.
Thirty-point lead and six minutes to go, Miller and Palmquist made an appearance as Rutgers finally exhausted almost its entire roster for the night. Simpson shows confidence and leadership amongst the young crew. Moments later and after minutes of chanting from Rutgers Nation, Terry took the place of Simpson as Rutgers led 71-30. Stephens joined the crew with a minute left and landed a two-pointer, sliding into his buddies who inherently begin hyping him up. The Scarlet Knights were having fun and Coach Pikiell took the large lead as an opportunity to tap into each player.
Spencer, the new addition and leading scorer of Monday's game talked about the atmosphere. "It was better than I imagined, I had heard it was loud and it was especially when we went on our little run in the first half and then of course in the second... I feel really appreciative of all the fans". He continues on to explain how his confidence built throughout the game, "I think when I see one go in, I can build off of that so when I miss a shot, I don't let that get to me because when I keep shooting and land one, I'm good".
Follow along to support your Scarlet Knights as they take on Sacred Heart, Thursday, November 10 at 7 pm at Jersey Mike’s Arena.