It was already an important game for Rutgers facing Indiana at a sold out RAC with both teams tied near the top of the Big Ten standings. However, with the surprising return of captain Geo Baker, the game took on even more importance, as the Scarlet Knights needed to hold serve at home to keep what has been a special season so far moving forward. Rutgers seized the moment in the opening minutes of the game, tread water for a long stretch and then took back control behind the gutsy and inspired effort of Baker in his return. Another strong defensive performance led the way as Rutgers beat Indiana (13-4; 3-3) on Wednesday night by the final score of 59-50.
Rutgers jumped out to a 12-0 run behind Montez Mathis before Indiana responded with its own 7-0 run. Al Durham completed a three-point play the hard way after RU committed a shot clock violation but the refs never blew the play dead and were caught sleeping in transition. The Scarlet Knights responded with a mini 5-0 run, followed but the Hoosiers delivered their own 5-0 run that ultimately ballooned to a 15-4 run overall. Indiana led 22-21 with six plus minutes left in the opening frame, as Rutgers was mired in a stretch of committing 5 turnovers and struggling to find quality shots in the halfcourt. Both teams fell into a scoring drought for several minutes.
With Geo Baker back into the game for the second time all of sudden things changed. The ball movement was better and it led to an NBA distance three-pointer at the top of the arc from Ron Harper Jr. On the next Indiana possession, Baker dove on the floor and forced a steal, which Jacob Young picked up and scored on an up and under layup to put Rutgers in the lead at 26-22 and the RAC rocking.
Out of the timeout, ball movement continued and Young found Paul Mulcahy open in the corner and he calmly drained a huge three. After a Rob Phinisee basket, Baker came up with another steal on the next defensive possession and found Caleb McConnell for another layup in transition. Rutgers finished the first half on a 10-2 run and went into the locker room 31-24. They were +3 on the boards and held a 7-4 advantage in second chance points, as well as forced 10 Indiana turnovers that resulted in a 12-6 edge in points off of turnovers. The Scarlets Knights shot 48% as well as 3 of 8 from three-point range while holding Indiana to 37% from the floor and 0 of 8 from behind the arc. RU did a great job of keeping the Hoosiers off the foul line, limiting them to 4 attempts for a team that came into the game with the best free throw rate in Big Ten play.
Out of the break, Rutgers brought defensive intensity and toughness, holding Indiana scoreless for the first five minutes of the second half. Offensively, McConnell scored near the rim and Yeboah hit his second three of the game to push the lead to 36-24 a little more than three minutes into the second half. Soon after Young found Shaq Carter for an alley-oop dunk off a drive. At the TV timeout, the Indiana bench was given a technical foul for arguing with an official. Baker missed his first free throw but made the second and it was 39-24 before Joey Brunk scored Indiana’s first basket of the half.
Myles Johnson had struggled up until this point before Mulcahy created an alley-oop dunk off of dribble penetration to get him going. On the next offensive possession, Johnson attacked the rim aggressively along the baseline and scored plus drew the foul. He missed the free throw. Soon after Young forced a steal, missed the layup but Baker was there for the tip-in with two Indiana defenders right there. The Hoosiers called a timeout trailing 45-28 with 12:04 to play. Going back to late in the first half, Rutgers was on a game changing 24-6 run.
Indiana kept fighting and went on a 5-0 run as the Scarlet Knights fell into a three minute plus scoring drought. Steve Pikiell called a 30 second timeout leading 45-33 with 8:53 remaining. Out of the timeout, Joey Brunk appeared to travel with the basketball but his basket counted, but missed his foul shot. The lead was down to 10 and McConnell turned it over on the next possession, as the scoreless drought eclipsed four minutes.
Rutgers got a big defensive stop on the next Indiana possession and Yeboah attacked the basket, making a contested layup that got the crowd back into the game. The Scarlet Knights had three consecutive stops on Indiana possessions before Jerome Hunter made it a 47-37 game. Al Durham made the Hoosiers first three-pointer of the game to cut the lead to just 7 points with under 5 minutes left.
McConnell took control and dribbled to the elbow and knocked down a big jumper to make it 49-40 leading into the last media timeout of the game with 3:39 remaining. Both teams were in the bonus and the free throw line was an issue for Rutgers, as a Young miss made them 3 of 10 at this stage in the game.
Under three minutes to play and the shot clock expiring, Baker penetrated and threw a beautiful alley-oop to Johnson who dunked it and gave Rutgers a 51-41 lead. McConnell made the play though, dribbling out of traffic under the rim and running time off the clock to set it up. On the next possession, Baker sent the RAC faithful into a frenzy as he drove to the rim and slammed home a thunderous dunk. The Hoosiers trailed by a dozen with just under two minutes to play.
Indiana’s Rob Phinisee hit a three with a minute to play and cut the lead to 54-46. Rutgers finished strong from the free throw line, making 5 of the final 6 attempts. They finished just 9 of 18 from the charity stripe, but made them when they needed to the most.
Akwasi Yeboah had struggled offensively recently, but came through tonight, making big shots when Rutgers needed them. He led the way with 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting and grabbed a team high 7 rebounds, as well as 2 steals.
Caleb McConnell was the only other Rutgers player to score in double figures, finishing with 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting and grabbed 6 rebounds. He played under control on both ends of the floor and made plays in key moments. McConnell benefited from the extra minutes with Baker out previously but continued to be a key contributor in his return.
Speaking of Baker, he changed the game with Rutgers trailing by 1 late in the first half and he stepped up again late in the game with Indiana hanging around. He finished with 7 points on just 2 of 7 shooting, but he added 4 rebounds, 4 assists, zero turnovers and 2 timely steals. His impact on this game was much more than stats though and the importance of Baker to this team cannot be overstated.
Myles Johnson struggled to get going but had some highlight reel dunks and finished with 8 points on 4 of 8 shooting and 3 rebounds.
As a team, Rutgers shot a respectable 47% while holding Indiana to just 32% from the floor. From three-point range, RU was only 4 of 15 for 27%, but held the Hoosiers to just 2 of 19 for 11%. For a second consecutive game and just third time all season, the Scarlet Knights lost the rebounding battle. However it was just a -1 rebounding margin and they did hold a 36-34 edge with points in the paint. RU had a +3 turnover margin which led to a 18-13 advantage with points off of turnovers.
Holding Indiana to just 12 free throws (10-12) was huge too due to their ability to get to the foul line often.
Although Rutgers struggled to get into an offensive rhythm at times and Indiana controlled the game for spurts, the defense of the Scarlet Knights continues to be the driving force to the major improvement this team has made. They forced Indiana into many contested jumpers and were able to limit them just enough in the paint. Rutgers continues to play well as a team and for one another. They fed off the energy of the crowd and are off to a program best 12-0 start at the RAC. They also beat Indiana for the third time in the last four meetings.
The crowd, which was great as usual, chanted “We want Cliff” after a big second half run for prized big man recruit Cliff Omoruyi who was in attendance once again. Greg Schiano shook his hand as the chant reverberated around the RAC. He named Rutgers in his final five this week and would be a massive get for this program. Wins like tonight can only help.
The student section started a “We Want Cliff” chant for Cluff Omoruyi, and eventually the whole RAC joined him. The 4-star center stood up and got a raucous response: pic.twitter.com/AY8JpdeJ8a— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) January 16, 2020
Up next, Rutgers (13-4; 4-2) hosts Minnesota (9-7; 3-3) at the RAC this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. It’s another huge opportunity for this team to continue to build a resume that is worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. To do that they’ll need to continue to make a run at a perfect season at home and if you are looking for tickets to what will be a sold out RAC once again on Sunday, click here. After Wednesday night’s victory, Rutgers sits in a tie for second place in the Big Ten standings and momentum firmly back on their side.