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Rutgers overcomes rough shooting to beat Michigan State at MSG

Two minutes before his shot that flipped the game, Caleb McConnell was locked in a stare-down with Rutgers teammate Oskar Palmquist. The Scarlet Knights had a chance to tie the game with eight minutes left, but McConnell’s inbounds pass — a lighter toss, trying to reset the offense with Palmquist as the outlet — sailed wide and toward the scorer’s table. 

Neither McConnell nor Palmquist knew what happened.

But the next time McConnell had a chance to tip the balance of the game, he sank a 3-pointer that gave Rutgers the lead for good. The Scarlet Knights, horrific shooting and all, held on for a 61-55 win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon. It was their 10th win in 13 games, despite making just seven shots in the first half and shooting just 37.5% for the game.

Paul Mulcahy led the Scarlet Knights with 17 points, while Clifford Omoruyi added 15.

The strange conglomeration of strong defense and poor shooting worked for Rutgers — as it has all season — even after it lost the piece of its lineup that, at least Saturday against Michigan State, made even its poor shooting be good enough to hold an early lead.

Paul Mulcahy led Rutgers with 17 points.
Caleb McConnell (22) of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights hugs teammate Paul Mulcahy (4) after defeating the Michigan State Spartans 61-55 in a game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 4.
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Mawot Mag had seven of the Scarlet Knights’ 13 points when he attempted a reverse layup, tumbled onto the court and exited the game. Nobody else had more than two. Rutgers made two shots in the first eight minutes and seven in the entire first half.

It wasn’t that Mag was Rutgers’ leading scorer — he’s far from it. The junior forward’s 7.9 points per game sit sixth on the Scarlet Knights, but Saturday, he sparked their offense with a pair of layups in transition as offensive set after offensive set stalled.

The last time Rutgers participated in a Big Ten Super Saturday game at the Garden in 2020, coach Steve Pikiell’s team were ranked for the first time in 41 years, and winners in 10 of their last 12, before suffering a disappointing loss to Michigan.

Steve Pikiell aragues with a referee during Rutgers' win over Michigan State on Feb. 4.

But two years later, back at the Garden, Rutgers has become consistent winners with back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, and a third one likely to follow next month.

The key ingredient in Pikiell’s recipe has always been the defense. But when Mag exited with Rutgers leading by one point, Michigan State took advantage just two minutes later after Tyson Walker sank a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound. Walker also blocked Cam Spencer’s transition layup attempt from behind two minutes later.

Rutgers forward Mawot Mag (3) drives to the basket during Rutgers' win over Michigan State on Feb. 4.

Michigan State extended its lead to eight just two minutes into the second half, and trouble continued to threaten when Rutgers couldn’t stop fouling. The Spartans reached the bonus with 11 minutes to go.

But the Scarlet Knights slowly clawed back, slowly strung together enough steals and made baskets to turn McConnell’s 3-point attempt into something significant. Mulcahy extended the Scarlet Knights’ lead to 51-44 with consecutive layups near the two-minute mark. And free throws, with the Scarlet Knights in control down the stretch, sealed their latest victory.