Game-winning three-pointer helps Rutgers take down No. 1 Purdue … again

Game-winning three-pointer helps Rutgers take down No. 1 Purdue … again

On a Thursday night in December 2021, Cam Spencer was scrolling for college basketball scores when he noticed a stunner — Rutgers beating top-ranked Purdue on a buzzer-beater.

“So I went and watched the highlights,” he said.

Thirteen months later history repeated itself, only Spencer didn’t have to search for highlights.

The transfer guard from Loyola-Maryland drilled a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to lift the Scarlet Knights to a 65-64 triumph at top-ranked Purdue Monday.

“To be able to do it again at Purdue was really cool,” he said.

Spencer finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and handed out three assists. He answered the question that had been looming over Rutgers’ season: Who has the onions to take, and make a shot with the game on the line?

“He played well the entire game,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “He’s a guy who’s in the gym, in the film room, the guys on the team respect him. He’s not just a shooter. He does a lot for us.”

Pikiell said Spencer wanted the ball in that decisive spot.

“At the end there, he was like, ‘I’m making this,'” the coach said. “He’s a real confident kid. He been a great addition.”

Getting Spencer the ball with some room to shoot was senior point guard Paul Mulcahy, who tallied 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists while committing no turnovers over 37 ice-in-the-veins minutes. Mulcahy carried Rutgers’ offense down the stretch, as Purdue rallied from a 13-point deficit to take the lead.

“He’s a leader,” Pikiell said. “He wanted the ball. He makes good decisions. He’s a stat-stuffer and he’s a winner. He showed it all tonight.”

Rutgers (10-4 Big Ten, 2-1 overall) has now prevailed in five of the past six meetings with Purdue. This also marks the highest-ranked road win in program history; previously it was a 77-64 stunner at No. 13 Pittsburgh in 2008. And it’s Rutgers’ second triumph over a top-10 team this season (along with No. 10 Indiana at home). Of the 13 times the Scarlet Knights have beaten a top-10 team in program history, four of them have been delivered by Pikiell.

More pressingly, Rutgers picked up its first win away from home this season, and what an enormous resume-builder this is.

Purdue (13-1, 2-1) had beaten Gonzaga and Duke on neutral floors and was one of just two unbeatens left in the country (New Mexico is the other). The Boilers came in averaging 77 points.

Rutgers should get a raucous reception at two home games later this week: Maryland (10-4, 1-2) Thursday (6: 30 p.m., Big Ten Network) and a staggering Iowa squad (8-6, 0-3) Sunday (noon, Big Ten Network).

1. Defensive game plan was top notch

Steve Pikiell has said it since August: This is his best defensive team because of its versatility. This season, for the first time, Pikiell trusts his guys to pressure the ball full court. He hasn’t unleashed that a ton, but employed the tactic to great effect against Purdue’s two freshmen guards. Early on it seemed to catch the Boilers off guard and set the tone. Of course, Pikiell also showed one of his tactical specialties – defending standout big men. The most effective way for Zach Edey to get the ball was on offensive boards, which tells you something about Rutgers’ collective post defense.  

2. Great battle inside

If you love big-man battles, this was your game. Rutgers’ junior center Cliff Omoruyi dominated the first half to stake the Scarlet Knights to a 34-24 halftime lead. Edey, who came in ranked seventh nationally in points (21.9) and second in rebounds (13.6), hit stride after the break. These are first-team All-Big Ten guys and they put on a show.

3. What this shows

If Rutgers can win in Mackey, they can win anywhere, against anyone. Experience matters in this sport, and the nucleus of this team has been through the wars. This is why Pikiell’s offseason focus is on retention and continuity. The nucleus of this team took a big step by winning at Wisconsin last year. The lesson: defense travels. Defense plus poise is a championship-caliber combination.

THREE QUOTES

Cam Spencer, asked about his game-winner:  “Every play matters in my opinion. It was a team effort all the way. I thought we were very connected and stayed poised the whole second half. Proud of our guys.”

Paul Mulcahy, asked about how he finished the game:  “The last five minutes probably four guys on the court touched the ball every possession. That’s the heart of who we are.”

Steve Pikiell:  “We’re tough. These guys have been through some wars. A lot of people didn’t think we could come in here (and win), but I think the group did.”

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected].

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