WASHINGTON — The Big Ten Tournament had to come to the East Coast to make it happen, but Rutgers finally got its first win in its new conference's tournament.
The Scarlet Knights impressed with a gutsy performance Wednesday, besting a not-as-good-as-usual group of Ohio State Buckeyes by dominating the boards and turning a whopping 19 offensive rebounds into 22 second-chance points.
It helped, of course, that Ohio State missed 13 free throws and made just five baskets in the second half of the 66-57 decision. But Rutgers will take what looks like a program-building win for first-year head coach Steve Pikiell.
The Knights have earned props from Big Ten coaches this season, Pikiell's peers noting that this year's team hasn't been a pushover. Of course, not being a pushover doesn't help much when the losses still stack up — and Rutgers had the most of any team in the league, 3-15 during the conference season.
But with the glare of the championship-week lights shining on Wednesday, more people got to see that this isn't you're brother who's one year older than you's Rutgers team.
"You know, this team has really competed. We learned how to compete this year," Pikiell said after Wednesday's win. "We couldn't close out some games. But it's a process when you're building a program. It takes steps.
"We got Rutgers going in the right direction. I'm very proud to be the head coach. It's a great university with great people. Our team is trying to work hard to make this a real proud program."
The supposed laughing stock of the Big Ten hasn't had its opponents doing much chuckling over its past two games. In the regular-season finale this past Saturday, Rutgers beat Illinois on a last-second 3-pointer to seemingly dash the Fighting Illini's NCAA tournament hopes. Of course, the Illini woke up Monday still on that NCAA tournament bubble. But then Rutgers did what it did Wednesday against Ohio State and capped Thad Matta's worst season in Columbus.
Next up is Northwestern, and the Wildcats are four years down the road in their head coach's own program rebuild. Chris Collins is just a few days away from taking Northwestern to its first NCAA tournament ever. The Cats earned a first-round bye in this week's Big Ten Tournament thanks in part to two wins over Rutgers. But those wins came by just a combined 13 points, and Collins has been one of those coaches describing this Rutgers team as a challenge.
That's likely to make Pikiell proud, as he's trying to do something in New Jersey similar to what Collins has done just north of Chicago.
"Coach Collins has done an unbelievable job," Pikiell said. "They have very good players. It's a really difficult game, especially on half-a-day prep. But our guys will fight. Again, I like their team a lot. They're playing with great chemistry. I watched them play a lot.
"They're on a little bit of a mission. We're trying to be on a mission ourselves."
The popular saying during championship week is that it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season. I think Collins and his Cats would readily admit it was hard to beat Rutgers twice this season. They trailed in the second half of both games.
The talk surrounding Northwestern this season is that a lot of firsts are being accomplished, with the big one just a few days away.
With its first Big Ten Tournament win, Rutgers has a first of its own.