PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP)Rutgers came into a season with high expectations but got off to a sluggish start. The last two games the Scarlet Knights have appeared to turn a corner, winning back-to-back games by at least 25 points.
Geo Baker had 17 points and four assists and Ron Harper Jr. had 15 points and seven rebounds to lead Rutgers past Massachusetts 82-57 at the RAC on Friday.
”The chemistry seems really good,” Baker said. ”I think all the guys are on the same page and everyone’s playing their roles – we’re doing really well.”
Rutgers (6-1) took the lead for the first time on a layup by Paul Mulcahy with 13:34 remaining in the first half to make it 8-7. UMass (5-3) would retake the lead at 15-13 a couple of minutes later on a 3-pointer by T.J. Weeks. Harper would give Rutgers the lead for good when he hit a layup to make it 21-20 with 6:32 to go in the half.
The Scarlet Knights would take a 34-27 lead into intermission and continue to build on the lead throughout the second half.
”When our defense is locked in like that, we’ll keep leads,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. ”When our defense gets a lapse, it becomes a problem, but I think they’re all learning.”
UMass was led by Weeks with 19 points and seven rebounds. Sy Chatman came off the bench to score 16.
Caleb McConnell and Jacob Young each added 10 points for Rutgers, while Myles Johnson grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
”I feel like we’re taking more pride on the defensive end. We’re preparing better in practice,” Harper said. ”This team’s just trying to create a defensive identity, and if we do that, we’re going to be a good team.”
UMass: After a 5-0 start under third-year coach Matt McCall, the Minutemen have lost three straight games. They have five more games and the month of January to get right before Atlantic 10 play begins in January.
Rutgers: Now things get real for the Scarlet Knights. While they’re off to a good start, every game but one – a loss – was in the cozy confines of their home arena. They travel to Pitt before opening conference play at No. 3 Michigan State and hosting Wisconsin before playing in-state rival No. 13 Seton Hall.
PUSHING THE PACE
The Scarlet Knights look best when they get out and run. Rutgers had 34 fastbreak points, while UMass managed only six.
”The way UMass plays, and we only had two days to prepare, we wanted to be really aggressive. We have a lot of ball handlers, so it plays into what we want to do,” Pikiell said.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
Rutgers had four players score in double-figures for the fourth straight game.
UMass: The Minutemen host South Carolina on Wednesday night.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights play Pittsburgh on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.