Despite beating Nebraska by 17 points on the road without captain Geo Baker at the beginning of this month, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that this game would be a dogfight. Rutgers was playing its third game in seven days and after leading by double digits early in the second half, they seemed to tire. Nebraska’s Cam Mack picked up the pace and the Huskers had a big day from behind the arc. Despite it all with Rutgers trailing by 6 points and three minutes to play, they gutted out a thrilling victory behind timely defense and three massive three-pointers to defeat Nebraska 75-72.
Geo Baker, playing his first game without a wrap on his previously injured thumb, came through when this team needed him most. He was scoreless the entire game until he hit two three’s down the stretch, including the game winner with 1.5 seconds remaining. It was a heroic moment for the captain and kept Rutgers a perfect 14-0 at the RAC this season.
It was a slow start for Rutgers as Nebraska made three three-pointers and led 9-2 less than four minutes into the game. After a Steve Pikiell timeout, Montez Mathis drove to the basket and scored, drawing the second foul of the game on Nebraska point guard Cam Mack. It was a huge moment in the game, as Mack headed to the bench at the 16:05 mark of the first half and Mathis converted the three-point play. Rutgers would outscore Nebraska 36-24 the rest of the opening frame to lead 38-33 at the break.
It was still a frustrating half as Rutgers fell in love with the three, taking 11 attempts which is far too many for this team, especially against a Nebraska team they dominated in the interior during the first meeting. The Huskers did employ a 2-3 zone near the end of the half that frustrated Rutgers, but they had taken too many shots from behind the arc way too early in the shot clock on several possessions. Regardless, once the defense started to tighten up and with Mack playing just 9 minutes in the first half, Rutgers assumed control of the game.
The Scarlet Knights were in the bonus around the midway point of the opening frame and made 6 of 9, while shooting 44% from the field. They held Nebraska to 36% shooting, including 5 of 15 from three-point range after they started the game 3 of 5. Rutgers was +1 on the boards, held a +3 turnover margin, as well as a 22-14 advantage with points in the paint. Jacob Young was the spark off the bench Rutgers needed, as he led the way in the first half with 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting, including 2 of 3 from three.
Coming out of halftime, Nebraska’s Cam Mack hit a three-pointer on the first possession of the second half to cut the Rutgers lead to just 2 points. However, the defense tightened up and good ball movement in the halfcourt helped Rutgers jump on Nebraska with a 13-2 run. They led 51-38 when Huskers head coach Fred Hoiberg called a timeout. Montez Mathis made two baskets during this stretch, including a three, but soon after picked up two fouls to head to the bench with three in the game.
After the timeout, Thorir Thorbjarnarson made his fourth shot of the game behind the arc to cut the lead to 10 points with more than 15 minutes remaining. While he started slow, it seemed only a matter of time that Myles Johnson would begin to exert his will, which is what happened at this stage of the game. He had a block defensively, grabbed an offensive rebound on the other end and scored a basket. He followed by running the floor after an Akwasi Yeboah block that looked like he was in on it and converted a layup to put Rutgers up 55-41 with 14:36 to play.
Nebraska played hard the entire game and cut the lead to 9 points on a mini 5-0 run before Akwasi Yeboah drew a foul on a three-point attempt and converted all three shots from the foul line. Thor answered with his fifth deep ball of the game on the next Nebraska possession, but Paul Mulcahy’s first basket of the game extended the lead back to double digits. They led 60-49 at the under-12 media timeout. However, this game was far from over.
The Huskers refused to go quietly as Jervay Green hit a three and made a layup to make it a 6 point game near the midway point of the second half. Soon after, Mack stole it from Mulcahy and drew a foul, converting both from the line to make it 60-56 with 10 minutes to play.
On the next Rutgers possession, Caleb McConnell knocked down a big jumper, but Mack hit a huge three-pointer for the Huskers to cut the lead to 3 points. After Green missed two free throws soon after, Thor grabbed a huge offensive rebound and Mack scored to make it 62-61 with 8 minutes to play. Nebraska was playing with a ton of confidence and the RAC faithful were visibly concerned. Charlie Easley was fouled soon after and made both free throws once the under-8 timeout to give the Huskers a 63-62 lead with 7:49 to play. Green stole it away from Young and he converted on the other end to give Nebraska a three point lead behind a 16-2 run that was aided with 5 turnovers by Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights were in trouble with seven minutes to play and coming out of a Steve Pikiell timeout, McConnell missed a jumper. Nebraska extended the lead to 5 points with a basket by Thor, who had 17 points at this point.
The RAC crowd tried their best to rally Rutgers and it helped, as the Huskers missed a three followed by Akwasi Yeboah hitting a massive three-pointer to cut the lead to 2 points. It was the first field goal for the Scarlet Knights in almost five minutes. However, Yeboah missed his next attempt from behind the arc and Mack knocked down a huge three for Nebraska, who led 70-65 with 4:10 left in the game. Pikiell called another timeout with the game in danger of slipping away.
Rutgers wisely got the ball to Johnson on the next possession, who drew the foul and made 1 of 2 from the line to cut the lead to 4 points. Johnson then blocked Easley on the next Nebraska possession and Baker drew a foul on the other end. He hadn’t scored all day and missed the front end of a one and one. Mack then hit a floater in traffic to extend the Huskers lead to 6 points with three minutes remaining.
And then, just like that, Geo Baker hit a huge three-pointer and the RAC was alive. Nebraska’s Thor missed a contested corner three and Yeboah tied the game with a monster three-pointer, his third of the game. It was 72-72 with 1:59 remaining and Nebraska called a timeout.
Mack drove the lane on the next Nebraska possession but Johnson stuffed him. Unfortunately, Baker lost it while driving the lane on the next Rutgers possession and turned it over. RU did a good job defensively on the next Nebraska possession, forcing a three from Easley, not a top option, and McConnell grabbed the miss on a huge rebound with a great box out move.
On the last possession of the game, Yeboah grabbed a huge offensive rebound off of a Geo miss and Baker was in isolation as the game clock was winding down. He kept his composure and promptly drained a game winning three-pointer with Green in his face, leading the RAC to explode in part relief, part joy. Rutgers won it 75-72 and completed its first season sweep of an opponent since joining the Big Ten.
Nebraska was led by Mack who scored 19 points behind a second half effort in which he sliced and diced the Rutgers defense. However, the Scarlet Knights adjusted well down the stretch and made it much tougher for the point guard to get to the rim. He was ineffective the final 3 minutes of the game and Nebraska was held scoreless. Thorir Thorbjarnarson also had 17 points on 5 of 8 shooting from behind the arc. Overall, the Huskers shot 11 of 28 from three-point range for 39% and it almost won them the game.
Rutgers certainly didn’t play its best, but they still found a way to win, which is what good teams do. It seemed obvious they tired in the second half with a double digit lead and it almost cost them. However, they tighted up defensively and made big shots down the stretch. That’s winning basketball, despite a scare that was almost an awful loss. Such is life in the best conference in college basketball.
RU shot 45% in the game, was a solid 8 of 22 from three (36%) and held the Huskers to 42% from the floor. Both teams shot in the 60’s from the foul line (RU 65%, Neb 69%), while Rutgers held a +7 rebounding margin. The key was on the offensive glass, where RU was +4 and it led to a 17-5 edge in second chance points. However, Nebraska almost won due to equaling Rutgers with 30 points apiece in the paint and holding a 18-12 edge in fast break points.
Akwasi Yeboah had a huge game for the home team, scoring a game high 20 points on 6 of 10 shooting, including 3 of 6 from three-point range. He added 7 rebounds and a team best +12 rating in the game. His veteran presence, shot making ability and big game experience has so important to the success of the team this season.
Three other Scarlet Knights scored in double digits, as Caleb McConnell has 12 points on 5 of 10 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. He continues to make winning plays for this team. Jacob Young finished with 12 points, all coming in the first half, which was important, but he struggled in the second half. Montez Mathis had some big moments and finished with 10 points and 4 rebounds, although him getting into foul trouble in the second half helped aid Nebraska’s comeback as Mack started to do some damage. Myles Johnson was double teamed most of the game, but still finished with 9 points and 11 rebounds. Rutgers also survived the worst offensive game of the season from Ron Harper Jr. who scored only 2 points on 1 of 7 shooting.
The big moments are when your best players have to step up and Geo Baker did just that. Playing his fourth game back from his injury and coming off the bench once again, he was 0 of 6 from the floor until the final three minutes of the game. Those two huge three’s can’t be overstated and his importance to this team is immeasurable. Credit to him for having the confidence to come through in the clutch the way he did. Hopefully the ending gives him a jolt into returning to form moving forward, as he clearly has been struggling to regain his typical game.
Complain about this performance all you want, but this proved what a gauntlet the Big Ten really is. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night. The fact that Rutgers was able to overcome a bad defensive performance and won a game that was their third in seven days speaks to the maturity and guts this team has. Credit Nebraska (7-13; 2-7) who played a very good game, but it wasn’t enough to break the will of Rutgers, who are now 15-5 overall and 6-3 in Big Ten play. They have now exceeded its win total from last season, are two wins away from clinching the program’s first winning season in 14 years and remain on track to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991 as of now.
Up next, Rutgers hosts Purdue on Tuesday night in another crucial conference showdown. If you would have said that the Scarlet Knights had a chance to finish the first half of Big Ten play with a .700 winning percentage, most people would have never believed it. However, here we are after Rutgers found a way in front of another raucous RAC crowd and have an opportunity to do just that against the Boilermakers in a few days.