It was like nothing had changed. It was a reminder that nothing has come easy, that nothing will come easy, that nothing is promised.
Rutgers left with disappointment Saturday, like each of its previous 11 meetings with Michigan. The Wolverines paused their problems, leaving Madison Square Garden on top.
But after decades filled with defeats, Rutgers now truly has something to lose.
Two weeks after ending a 41-year drought outside the national polls, the No. 25 Scarlet Knights will likely rejoin the unranked masses following a 69-63 loss to Michigan at the Garden.
Rutgers (16-6, 7-4 Big Ten), which had won 10 of its previous 12 games, highlighted its biggest roadblock to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991, falling to 1-6 away from campus. The Scarlet Knights next visit No. 15 Maryland on Tuesday.
Rutgers was given a gift by an overconfident national power. Michigan — returning to the Garden for the first time since winning the 2018 Big Ten Tournament — had sacrificed a home game to play in front of its strong alumni base in New York, unafraid of a team that spent four of the past five seasons in the Big Ten basement and hadn’t produced a winning season in 14 years.
The mistake was obvious long before Saturday. A sea of red swallowed both bowls, invigorated by the Scarlet Knights’ unexpected success. The volume produced approached levels the Garden has grown unaccustomed to. The de facto home crowd carried bravado and beer and belief, treating the winning tip-off like a game-winning shot.
Rutgers took advantage and seized an early lead, but trailed nearly the entire first half after enduring a scoring drought of 5:27 and missing 11 straight field goals. Led by 12 points in the first 11 minutes from Brandon Johns Jr. — who averages 5.7 points, but finished with 20 — the Wolverines took a 10-point lead against Rutgers’ uncharacteristically poor perimeter and interior defense. The Scarlet Knights dominated the offensive glass and clawed their way to a 37-34 halftime deficit.
Rutgers briefly stole the lead at the start of the second half, but quickly descended into another pit of offensive misery, in which it went another four-plus minutes without a point during an 11-0 Michigan run. The Wolverines (13-8, 4-6) stretched their lead to 14 with nine minutes remaining, but Rutgers was relentless, forcing 15 turnovers and amassing a 25-0 edge in second-chance points to cut the deficit to five in the final two minutes.
Rutgers received so many opportunities to get closer. Each clanked off the rim. Eventually, Geo Baker put Rutgers down two with a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left, but Franz Wagner pushed the lead back to two possessions by hitting both ends of a one-and-one at the line.