5 observations from Rutgers’ tight overtime win in season opener against Lehigh: Scarlet Knights survive scare, Paul Mulcahy runs work-in-progress offense | #schoolshooting

It was closer than it should have been, but Rutgers survived a scare in the opening game of its most anticipated season in generations.

It took an extra period for the Scarlet Knights to defeat Lehigh, the 272nd ranked team on KenPom that was picked last in the Patriot League, to earn a tight 73-70 victory. They were lucky not to lose in regulation. But a win is a win no matter how you get it, and head coach Steve Pikiell’s best team yet proved it is good enough to survive a solid punch in the mouth.

Here are five observations from the tight win:

The first half was dreadful and the second half wasn’t much better

Maybe it was the adrenaline from playing in front of a sold-out crowd for the first time in 20 months, maybe it was the rust from not playing in a competitive game in eight months, but whatever the reason, the Scarlet Knights struggled mightily in a hectic first half. They missed all seven of their three-point attempts, turned the ball over seven times and were out-rebounded 17-16, leading to a 36-31 halftime deficit. Rutgers is not the only high-major team to struggle against a low-major team this week, but a slow start like that against this caliber of team, then allowing them to stick around deep into the second half and nearly pull off the monumental upset, should sound some alarm bells in Piscataway.

Paul Mulcahy is the point guard of an offense that needs work

Rutgers played coy when the subject of who the primary ball-handler on the team would be this season with Jacob Young in Eugene, Oregon, this winter.

Based on the first game of the season, Paul Mulcahy is at the top of the pecking order. When he and Geo Baker shared the floor, it was the junior was the one who ran the offense in the half-court and the first person rebounders looked to give the ball to after coming down with it. Baker took the reigns at times — usually after a Mulcahy slip-up — but make no mistake: this is Mulcahy’s show to run. He was up-and-down in the role, making a couple of errant passes and giving up a charge in transition. He dished five assists and three turnovers, along with scoring 9 points on 3-of-10 shooting.

As for the rest of the pecking order, Baker ran point when Mulcahy was on the bench and McConnell ran the backup unit when both were off the court.

How did the offense look with the new set-up? There was plenty of ball movement, but not many open looks came from it. And when the open looks did pop up, the Scarlet Knights did not take advantage, shooting 37.5% from the floor, including 1-of-13 (7.7%) on 3-pointers. Rutgers may have strong chemistry, but that doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t translate into points.

Cliff Omoruyi is a freak athlete

Watching Omoruyi jump around the gym on Wednesday night made every outlandish story his teammates told NJ Advance Media’s Steve Politi last month seem like understatements.

The second-year center showed his athleticism throughout his 24 minutes on the court and it started from the opening tip. He threw down a ferocious dunk in Rutgers’ first possession, the first of numerous slams he had on the night. He sprinted across the floor in transition, beating everyone to both ends just about each time. His night wasn’t perfect — he missed a couple of hook shot attempts and committed three fouls — but a 16-point, nine-rebound statline in his first game as Rutgers’ undisputed center has to leave Pikiell and company feeling good.

Fans were fired up

It had been 618 days since the stands at Jersey Mike’s Arena were last filled. Ryan O’Connor had that number memorized.

The president of the Riot Squad, the school’s official student fan group, had been counting them down leading up to Wednesday. He could not wait to get back to the front row of the student section and cheer for the Scarlet Knights again after the coronavirus pandemic robbed him of an entire season of it.

O’Connor, a Freehold native, was so fired up to be back, he was outside the building at 4:30 — 90 minutes before doors opened for fans to get inside. — alongside fellow Riot Squad members Andrew Galvach and Carmine Cardile and junior fan Joey Certo.

That excitement lasted through the night, from the moment the Scarlet Knights unveiled a banner honoring the 2020-21 team before the game, in the final minute of regulation when Rutgers forced overtime, until Omoruyi earned the loudest pop of the night with an alley-oop dunk that sealed the win.. The packed student section cheered every dunk, block and made field goal without missing a beat from the electric atmosphere they created the last time they were in the building. When Baker hit a three to put Rutgers up 41-40 with 16 minutes to play, the old barn became ear-splitting loud.

After a year of empty arenas, the roar of the crowd made college basketball feel normal again.

Riot Squad members pose outside of Jersey Mike’s Arena prior to Rutgers’ season-opener against Lehigh.

Nice to meet you

Six Scarlet Knights played in front of that packed Jersey Mike’s Arena crowd for the first time on Wednesday.

Some, like Omoruyi, LSU transfer Aundre Hyatt (8 points, four rebounds) and freshman Jaden Jones (4 points, two rebounds), made a strong first impression. Others, like San Jose State transfer Ralph Agee (0 points, three rebounds, two turnovers) and second-year players Oskar Palmquist (0 points, one rebound in 3 minutes) and Dean Reiber (2 points, two assists, one rebound in six minutes), did not make quite the same mark. They’ll have 30 more games to make up for it.

Thank you for relying on us to provide the journalism you can trust.

Brian Fonseca may be reached at bfonseca@njadvancemedia.com.

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