Rutgers basketball drops controversial heartbreaker to No. 25 Ohio State

Win or lose, Rutgers basketball coach Steve Pikiell typically conducts his postgame press conference with an upbeat disposition.

Not this time.

After the Scarlet Knights fell at 25th-ranked Ohio State 67-66 Thursday on a controversial buzzer-beater, a visibly crestfallen Pikiell struggled to find the words.

“Just tough down the stretch," he said. "One play away. Got to give credit to (Chris) Holtmann and Ohio State; they’re tough, they’re physical."

Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Caleb McConnell (22) argues a call during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights guard Caleb McConnell (22) argues a call during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena.

With Rutgers up three points in the final seconds, Pikiell instructed his players to foul and force Ohio State to the free-throw line. The foul occurred with 5.8 seconds left. The Buckeyes made both shots, pulling within one, and then reliable fifth-year guard Caleb McConell got fouled and missed the back end of two freebies. A career 76 percent free-throw shooter, McConnell was 10-for-10 on the season before the final miss.

With the Scarlet Knights up two, McConnell forced Ohio State's Bruce Thornton to the sidelines and appeared to have a stop a midcourt before reserve guard Tanner Holden took a desperation flip pass and buried a long triple at the buzzer. It looked like Thornton stepped on the out-of-bounds line when he was trapped on the sidelines at midcourt, and replays showed Holden was standing out of bounds and failed to reestablish himself on the court before receiving Thornton's pass.

Rutgers is now 6-3 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten and 0-7 at Ohio State all-time -- 0-6 under Pikiell. Junior center Cliff Omoruyi paced the Scarlet Knights with 16 points and eight rebounds in a classic big-man showdown with the Buckeyes Zed Key (22 points, 14 boards).

Ohio State (7-2, 1-0), which was missing starting guard Isaac Likekele (4.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.1 apg), visits Rutgers Jan. 15.

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3 THOUGHTS

1. Will Big Ten address this?

At first it was inconclusive as to whether Thornton stepped out of bounds when bringing the ball up -- only much later did a camera angle surface that appeared to show him stepping on the line -- but Holden clearly did not reestablish himself on the court before taking his shot.

It appears as though Rutgers' staff was focused on arguing about the first issue and did not know about the second. Neither did most of the viewing audience, because ESPN did a terrible job of not exploring the controversy before cutting away to the next game. Either way, the officials can't get BOTH of those calls wrong.

Will the Big Ten acknowledge the error and/or discipline Larry Scirotto, Kipp Kissinger and Roger Ayers? The Big East did both after Rutgers' infamous Big East Tournament loss to St. John's in 2011. When Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton ran off the court when two seconds should have been put back on the clock, the Big East publicly acknowledged the mistake and pulled the trio from the rest of the tournament.

Don't hold your breath on the Big Ten, which tends to regard Rutgers as a black sheep.

2. Fouling up 3 is correct, but...

Tough to come down hard on Pikiell here. Optimally, though, you foul in that spot with under 5 seconds left. Rutgers' Mawot Mag did it with 5.8 left, and Ohio State was far from the basket when the foul was committed. Rutgers should have let the Buckeyes advance a bit farther and drained valuable fractions off the clock.

In the past, Pikiell leaned toward playing it out and not fouling (his team came into the game with the nation's top-ranked 3-point defense and his program generally defends the arc well). Afterward he seemed to be down on himself about the decision.

It's also worth noting that Pikiell subbed in Cam Spencer (a 95 percent free-throw shooter) for the final possession, but Paul Mulcahy did not find him on the inbounds even though he appeared to be open.

3. An even better showing than vs. Indiana

You could make a case Rutgers played better in this loss than in Saturday's home win over 10th-ranked Indiana. Twisting Indiana's arm at home is old hat. But on the road, against a like-minded, physical opponent, trailing by 11 late in the first half, the Scarlet Knights showed you something. On both ends of the court, players one through nine, this was a stronger showing.

Brutal breaks at the end, but this Rutgers team is experienced enough to grow from it and use it as motivation.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) calls timeout after falling on a loose ball between Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) and forward Aundre Hyatt (5)
Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) calls timeout after falling on a loose ball between Rutgers Scarlet Knights center Clifford Omoruyi (11) and forward Aundre Hyatt (5)

PIKIELL'S QUOTES

On the endgame: "Thought we played well, thought we made plays down the stretch, just didn’t get that last stop. Thought he (Thornton) kind of went out bounds, I’m not sure. But they hit a huge three and won the game. I haven’t (seen a replay or photo), so I don’t know anything about that. I thought it was (out) because he was right in front of me."

On fouling up 3 late: "With that 3-point lead right there, just to get them to not be able to heave up a 3 with that little time left on the clock. We got what we wanted, we got to the free-throw line, but not able to finish the deal. Disappointing."

“My team, proud of them, we’ve won games like this, but just a tough way to lose. Give them credit, they made one more play, I’m not sure about the sideline thing. I thought he clearly was (out) but I didn’t see anything (replay-wise)...I didn’t get any explanation.”

On his message to his players: “It’s tough right now. They played their hearts out. It’s on me. I’ve got to do better job. Hopefully the ball will bounce our way one of these games. Just disappointed for our guys. Tough place to play here and to have a chance to win it, just very difficult.”

On Cam Spencer (11 points, 5 assists, 2 steals): “He was really good. Made plays, good player. Paul (Mulcahy), having him back changes a lot of things for us, moves Cam to a spot where he’s able to do a lot of things.”

On Caleb missing the final free throw and seeming despondent afterward: “Caleb is the best. We’ve been here before. These kids are tough and resilient. We’ll bounce back and we’ve got a lot more season to go, and hopefully we’ll get one of these back by a point.”

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 jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers basketball drops heartbreaker to No. 25 Ohio State