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Steve Pikiell guides Rutgers to opening-round win in Big Ten tourney

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders reacts after sinking a

Rutgers guard Corey Sanders reacts after sinking a three-point basket against Minnesota during the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Oh, does Steve Pikiell love Madison Square Garden.

“Best venue in the world,” said the former Stony Brook University coach, who guided Rutgers to a 65-54 victory over Minnesota Wednesday night in a first-round game of the first Big Ten Tournament to be played in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Pikiell’s Garden resume had its roots in his first-ever postseason game, when he scored a career-high 27 points as a Connecticut freshman in the 1987 Big East Tournament, a game the Huskies lost to Boston College.

“Were they using peach baskets back then?” Pikiell joked. But when asked which he enjoyed more, that game or Corey Sanders’ 23-point performance that moved the 14th-seeded Scarlet Knights (14-18) into Thursday night’s game against No. 6 Indiana, he turned serious.

“Corey Sanders, no doubt about it,” Pikiell said. “He made big plays on both ends of the court.”

Sanders hit a huge three late in the second half that gave Rutgers a 52-47 lead and created some breathing room with a jumper for a 56-50 advantage with 1:58 left. The Scarlet Knights made nine of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal a rare victory. They entered the game having lost 10 of their last 11, the same mark of futility as Minnesota, coached by Richard Pitino, the son of deposed Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

But for the second year in a row under Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights won a first-round Big Ten Tournament game as the conference’s lowest seed. “That 14 is just a number and it doesn’t represent the team we are,” said Mike Williams, who scored 12 points. “The results aren’t always what we want, but we always play hard.”

And, a Pikiell trademark, they always play dogged defense and rebound relentlessly. The Knights limited the Golden Gophers to 34.6-percent shooting, including 3-for-19 on threes. “We couldn’t make a shot to save our lives,” Pitino said.

Rutgers’ defense, second in the Big Ten allowing 64.5 points per game, had a lot to do with that, and the Scarlet Knights also outrebounded Minnesota decisively, 49-28.

That, too, is a product of the work ethic that Pikiell brought to Rutgers, where he recently signed a contract extension through the 2023-24 season. By then, he hopes to be winning 20 games regularly, as he did at Stony Brook. For now, the goals are more modest.

“Coach preached this week that 40 gets you 40,” Sanders said, a reference to winning one 40-minute game that enables you to play another.

On this night, the Scarlet letter was a huge ‘W.’

Iowa 96, Illinois 87. The first-ever Big Ten game in the Big Apple was a big-time shootout. The No. 12 Hawkeyes used a three-pronged attack to advance to Thursday’s game against No. 5 Michigan. Guard Jordan Bohannon had 25 points, including 5-of-7 from downtown. Luka Garza scored 20 points and Tyler Cook added 19. The trio shot 20-for-28 from the field, and Iowa made 56.3 percent of its field goals. The Illini also shot well, 48.5 percent, led by Kip Nichols’ 31 points.

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