NEW YORK CITY — It felt like a slight exaggeration to get a point across from Steve Pikiell.
Asked why Geo Baker didn’t make the trip to Columbus for Rutgers final road game of the regular season, the Scarlet Knights’ head men’s basketball coach said his freshman guard was suffering from the flu. The illness got bad enough Baker — already slight for a Big Ten guard — lost 11 pounds.
As difficult as it felt to comprehend, Pikiell may have undersold it — according to Baker, he may have lost even more.
“Worst I ever felt in my life,” he said when asked about the illness.
It was another road block for Baker, who had recently hit the freshman wall that so many great players have found themselves at. After putting up 16 points on then-No. 3 Purdue and nearly helping the Scarlet Knights pull the greatest upset in program history, Baker failed to score double-digit points over the next five games.
He went 7-for-27 in the stretch, which extended to the Scarlet Knights win over Minnesota in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, where he finished with just three points on 1-for-5 shooting.
Rutgers survived against the Gophers off the back of his backcourt partner Corey Sanders, but with an Indiana team that crushed the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway earlier in February, Baker needed to return to form for his team to have a chance.
He certainly came up big when Rutgers needed him.
Baker scored 15 points in the 76-69 win over the Hoosiers, tying senior forward Deshawn Freeman for the second-most on the team behind another strong performance from Sanders.
“A couple of games, he hit the freshman wall but he’s back,” Sanders said of Baker. “We’re glad to see it because we’re going to need him if we’re going to keep going on this run. He showed some big cojones out there.”
It wasn’t how many points Baker scored that mattered the most — it was when he scored them.
He hit two of the nine straight made field goals Rutgers closed the first half with, playing a small part in the 19-4 run that completed a big first-half comeback.
When Indiana scored five quick points out of the break to tie the game at 33, Baker hit a three to cut off the Hoosier run and maintain the Scarlet Knights distance in front.
With five minutes to play and Indiana threatening to close the gap once again, Baker let it fly from three and put Rutgers back up three, 56-53.
Finally, with the Hoosiers intentionally fouling as they desperately tried to comeback down the stretch, Baker hit four clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds to clinch the win.
“I felt great,” he said. “I had a really good talk after the first game yesterday and he just told me to stay confident, my time is coming and I felt really good out there. I have great teammates out there telling me to keep shooting the ball and just happy we won the game.”
The performance earned a shoutout from a teammate grateful to live another game.
“Geo came up clutch,” said senior guard Mike Williams. “He finally had his flu game we were hoping he’d have. Coach Hobbs said ‘come back, young fella.’ We know the kind of play he’s capable of and he showed that today.”
That next game comes against third-seeded and No. 8 ranked Purdue, the same team Baker dropped 16 against at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
The venue won’t be the same, but as the closest team to Madison Square Garden, the support for the Scarlet Knights is expected to be similar than that February night in Piscataway.
As for the magnitude and significance of the game, it’s easily the biggest of the Pikiell era and among the most important in recent program history. But that doesn’t scare the freshman one bit.
“That’s why we came here,” Baker said. “That’s why Coach Pikiell came here, that’s why all the guys in this room came here. We want to be a part of something special, we want to build something here and it’s a new era and that’s what we’re trying to make here … We really believe that they are the best team in the big ten but we feel we can beat them too. We came at them really hard at home, but at the same time we know they’re a great team so we have to respect that and we have to play really hard.”