NEW YORK — Steve Pikiell can be forgiven if he experienced a little deja vu as he called timeout after timeout in the early stages of Rutgers’ 76-69 victory over Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament second round.
When these teams met four weeks ago, Indiana jumped out to leads of 11-2, 17-3 and 22-6 en route to a 22-point triumph.
The same thing happened Thursday night, as Indiana scored the first seven points and had a pair of 14-point leads in the first 14 minutes.
But unlike the previous affair in Piscataway, Rutgers woke up in a big way.
“As I told the players, these games aren’t easy,” Pikiell said, “but we have to continue to stay the course.”
The end result was one of the biggest triumphs for a downtrodden Rutgers program over the last two decades.
“Just real proud day, these guys kept fighting and I’m real happy for Rutgers Nation,” Pikiell said. “We just toughed it out, and we get 40 (minutes) more so we’re excited about that.”
It marks the first time Rutgers has won two conference-tournament games since its improbable run to the Big East semifinals in 1998.
One night after scoring 23 points in the opening-round win over Minnesota, Corey Sanders scored 28 on 12-for-20 shooting while Deshawn Freeman and Geo Baker contributed 15 points apiece to give Rutgers its first victory over a storied Indiana program in seven tries.
With the win, the Scarlet Knights (15-18) advance to face third-seeded Purdue here at approximately 9 p.m. Friday.
The Scarlet Knights nearly stunned the Boilermakers (now 26-5) when they were ranked No. 3 in the country, falling 78-76 in Piscataway on Feb. 3.
An improbable 13-0 run over a three-minute spurt late in the first half pulled Rutgers within 26-25.
After Indiana snapped a nearly four-minute drought with a basket, the Scarlet Knights notched their first lead and went into intermission with a 29-28 advantage.
Sanders scored six of his 10 first-half points during the run, including an emphatic dunk off a steal that caused an eruption from the Rutgers faithful among the 13,996 fans at MSG.
“We did something special I knew we could do,” Pikiell said. “And it’s nice to do it at Madison Square Garden.”
In many ways, it was a reversal of last year’s Big Ten second-round tilt for Rutgers. Northwestern used a 31-0 first-half run to thwart any chance for the upset-minded Scarlet Knights en route to an 83-61 rout.
Against Indiana, Rutgers used a 34-10 run to wrest control. Rutgers’ defense was unrelenting and the Scarlet Knights connected on 15 of 25 shots (60 percent) during the game-defining stretch.
Indiana refused to go away, tying it at 46-apiece with 8:25 to play. But Eugene Omoruyi connected on a conventional 3-point play at the other end to give Rutgers the lead again.
Indiana pulled back within 51-50 with six minutes to play, but a driving layup by Sanders and a 3-pointer by Geo Baker gave the Scarlet Knights a 56-50 advantage with 5:11 remaining.
Rutgers led 61-54 following a pull-back jumper from Sanders with 2:49 left.
But Indiana’s Robert Johnson drilled a 3-pointer one minute later to pull the Hoosiers within 63-59.
Following a timeout, Sanders hit a tough runner from eight feet. An Indiana miss at the other end allowed Sanders to leak out, and Baker hit him for a full-court assist. Sanders finished with an emphatic dunk to give Rutgers a 67-60 lead with 1:05 to play.
Johnson hit another 3-pointer to trim the Hoosiers’ deficit to four. But Sanders answered with another dunk nine seconds later, and Baker then iced it with a pair of free throws with 31.4 seconds remaining.
Mike Williams, the Brooklyn native who was a ballboy on this MSG court for Knicks games when he was 5 years old, capped it with two free throws with five seconds to play and the Scarlet Knights celebrated their historic triumph at center court with hugs, high fives and emphatic gestures to the Rutgers fans scattered throughout the arena.
“It felt amazing,” Freeman said not long after doing a post-game interview on the Big Ten Network.