Rutgers basketball escapes with 'beautiful' road win at Northwestern

When Rutgers returns to Chicago in a few weeks, it might get a day to sight-see before hitting the court again.

Forward Eugene Omoruyi drained a pair of free throws with second to go as the Scarlet Knights held on for a 59-56 win over Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Wednesday night, snapping a three-game losing skid while taking a big step toward a first-round bye in March’s Big Ten Tournament at the United Center.

It was a rockfight of a game, from poor shooting to missed free throws to three-point futility to turnovers to a potentially devastating late game call. But that’s OK, head coach Steve Pikiell said during his post-game radio interview with Joe Boylan and Jerry Recco.

“These are the kinds of wins I love,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

We won’t go that far, but it was certainly a historic one for Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights (12-12, 5-9) won their fifth conference game this season and their second on the road – two first-time achievements since joining the Big Ten. Rutgers now has a three-game lead in the win column on last place in the league with six conference games to go as it looks to avoid the Big Ten cellar for the first time. The Scarlet Knights also now have a virtual 1.5-game lead on Indiana for 10th place in the standings – the top 10 teams do not play in the first round of the conference tournament.

Rutgers got some separation in what was a back-and-forth game for most of the night and led by eight with six minutes to go. But Northwestern kept hanging around – Rutgers helped by going eight-of-15 from the free throw line – and pulled to within 57-56 with 18.2 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Vic Law.

Rutgers was then hit for a five-second call attempting to inbounds the ball, giving the Wildcats a free possession to play for the win. But Law missed a jumper and Rutgers’ Ron Harper Jr. corralled the rebound. It looked like Harper was about to go in for the game-sealing rebound on a breakaway, but Northwestern’s A.J. Turner flew down the court to knock the ball out of his hands.

The Scarlet Knights had no issue inbounding the second time around, though, getting the ball to Omoruyi. He was then fouled and hit both shots to bring the game to its final score, but not after Law’s last-second 3-point attempt did not connect for the Wildcats (12-12, 3-10).

Law led all scorers with 17 points. Guards Geo Baker and Montez Mathis each had 12 for Rutgers and Omoruyi finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. Mathis grabbed six boards and guard Caleb McConnell gutted out five points and six rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench despite illness.

Rutgers turned the ball over four times in the first two minutes of the game and trailed by six early, but battled back to take a 14-13 lead with eight minutes left before halftime. The Scarlet Knights’ edge grew as large as six, but the Wildcats responded with another 6-0 run to close out the half and tie the game at 22. The teams then continued to go back and forth once play resumed with seven lead changes and two ties in the first 13 minutes, no lead larger than three points for either team.

That changed, though, when Doorson scored on an alley-oop dunk and Omoruyi drilled a 3-pointer in a span of 45 seconds to cap a 10-1 run and give Rutgers a 49-41 lead with 6:13 to go. The Wildcats didn’t go away, though, and chipped away before A.J. Turner buried a 3-pointer with 1:50 left to pull Northwestern back within three. Law then hit a 3 moments later to make it 55-53 with 1:04 to go after an Omoruyi basket, and then another after Johnson had a layup to make it 57-56 with 18.2 seconds left.

Rutgers had not won two conference road games in a season since the 2012-13 campaign when it was still a member of the Big East. The Scarlet Knights last won five league games in 2013-14, its only year in the American Athletic Conference.

James Kratch may be reached at jkratch@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesKratch. Find NJ.com Rutgers Football on Facebook.