Corey Sanders sat with the ball at halfcourt, but his next move surprised everyone on their feet inside the RAC.
Rather than attack the basket or pull the trigger on the final shot as he has done before, the sophomore guard dished it off to power forward DeShawn Freeman.
The 6-foot-8 junior didn’t hesitate. He splashed the game-winning shot from far behind the three-point arc with seven seconds left to lift Rutgers past Illinois 62-59 on Senior Day.
“I didn’t think about it,” said Freeman, a 35.7-percent career shooter from three. “Coach (Steve Pikiell) tells me all the time, ‘shoot the ball,’ and (Sanders) was able to make a good pass and everybody collapsed on him.
“I just let it go.”
Freeman, who posted a game-high 21 points on 87.5-percent shooting and five rebounds, gave the Scarlet Knights (14-17, 3-15) served up a dagger with the deep three. It was only his fifth make from behind the arc.
He also all but burst the bubble for the Fighting Illini (18-13, 8-10) who won four straight Big Ten games before they met a Rutgers team that wanted it more.
“I knew, no matter what was going to happen, we were going to win this game,” said junior guard Mike Williams. “That play, that last play wasn’t really drawn the way we expected it. We wanted the ball in Corey’s hand and either do a kick-out three to me or me backdoor. But Deshawn practices those threes every day. I see him before practice, after practice, he’s always practicing those shots. He always tells me, ‘one day it’s going to come down to that. I just feel it.’”
Sanders, who passed up the game-winning shot, came to life with 13 of his 17 points in the second half. He started off 1-for-9 from the field with just four points in the first half.
“I just wanted to stay aggressive,” Sanders said. “I feel like last game, when I was cold against Maryland, I just stopped attacking. I only shot the ball nine times. I used to get it up at least 13, 14 (times). I was kind of mad at myself when I got home.
“Today, I wasn’t going to let it affect me. I was cold, but I just wanted to keep attacking and hopefully it was going to fall, which it did today, and that was a big boost for us.”
Before the back-and-forth excitement of the final stretch, Rutgers overcame another slow start to the second half. The Scarlet Knights trailed by as many as 10 points with less than 15 minutes to go in the game.
“It’s a tough league, as you know,” Pikiell said. “We’re playing teams on the bubble for NCAA bids, so we’re getting the best shot from everybody. To come away with a great win today, to kind of wrap up the year here at home in a great environment was tremendous.”
Rutgers managed just two wins through its first two years in the Big Ten. Under Pikiell, it already surpassed that with three.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Williams said. “My freshman year, we won 10 games. Last year was bad. We won seven games. But this year, winning three Big Ten games … the results are there.
“Like coach Pikiell said, we’re no longer the league’s punching bag. We’re going to fight. We’re going to find ways to win games. And if we lose, you’re going to know Rutgers fought that.”