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Rutgers beats Minnesota 65-54 to advance in Big Ten at MSG

NEW YORK -- The home team in the first Big Ten Tournament in Madison Square Garden will play at least one more game.

Corey Sanders scored 23 points and last-place Rutgers won a Big Ten Tournament game for the second straight season, beating Minnesota 65-54 on Wednesday night.

The 14th seed Scarlet Knights (14-18) play sixth-seeded Indiana on Thursday night. Rutgers upset Ohio State as the 14th seed in last year's Big Ten Tournament.

"That 14 doesn't represent the team that we are," said Sanders, the team's best player and a junior who could leave early for the NBA.

Four seasons in the Big Ten have produced four last-place finishes for the Scarlet Knights, but second-year coach Steve Pikiell can claim a rare accomplishment for the program. The last time Rutgers won conference tournament games in consecutive seasons was 2005 and '06, back when the Scarlet Knights were coming to the Garden as a member of the Big East. In 18 seasons in the Big East, Rutgers won a total of seven conference tournament games and only once, in 1998, did the Scarlet Knights win two in a single tournament.

"It's not been easy, but it's never easy when you're building something," Pikiell said. "And you've got to go through these times to enjoy the good times."

Minnesota (15-17) ended an awful season, filled with off-court issues and injuries, by losing 14 of its final 16 games. Isaiah Washington, a freshman from Harlem, led the Gophers with 18 points. Minnesota got manhandled on the boards by Rutgers, 49-28, and second-leading scorer Nate Mason was 4 for 14 from the field while fighting flu-like symptoms and good defense by Sanders.

"(Mason) was cramping up," Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. "And Corey was playing really good one-on-one basketball."

The Big Ten brought its basketball tournament to New York for the first time this season, allowing Rutgers to be the home team of sorts. Playing about 35 miles from their campus in East Brunswick, New Jersey, the Scarlet Knights did not exactly pack the house, but their fans were easily the most prominent and noisy in the Garden's lower bowl.

Sanders made a 3 with 6:15 left in the second half to give Rutgers a 52-47 lead, and put Rutgers up by six a few minutes later with another jumper. The Scarlet Knights, the worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten, made 7 of 8 from the line down the stretch to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Rutgers: Pikiell is no stranger to conference tournament success at the Garden. He was a point guard for Connecticut in 1990 when the Huskies won their first Big East Tournament championship here.

"I love Madison Square Garden. No better place. No better venue," Pikiell said.

Minnesota: The Gophers finish what had to qualify as one of the most disappointing seasons any team in college basketball had this season. Minnesota started the season ranked 15th in the country, expected to be a Big Ten contender and coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance. At one point they were ranked 12th in the nation. Pitino's fifth season turned out to be a wreck. Star senior Reggie Lynch was expelled from school for sexual assault. Amir Coffey, another double-figure scorer, missed much of the season with a shoulder injury.

"I think there's a reason why we struggled," Pitino said. "So I think when their expectations were high, we had a full roster. When we lost players, obviously it changed."

UP NEXT

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost to Indiana in the regular season by 22.

Minnesota: The Gophers can hope for a better next season.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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