College basketball can be a roller coaster ride, but Rutgers fans spent the past three decades stuck at the bottom of the first loop. Last season’s breakthrough 20 win campaign ended with them stuck at the top of a loop and having to walk down the ride due to the NCAA Tournament being cancelled. The basketball gods dealt a cruel blow after years of epic losing.
Last week, Rutgers earned it’s highest national ranking since the historic 1976 Final Four team at no. 11 in the AP Poll. They jumped out to a commanding 16 point second half lead against Ohio State, only to lose in painful and frustrating fashion down the stretch.
All of a sudden with injuries mounting, the line between success and trouble drew closer. With four ranked opponents ahead in the next five games, the Scarlet Knights needed to bounce back against Purdue in as close to a must win game as there could be in late December.
And then, just an hour before tip-off, Rutgers announced that the seventh leading scorer in the nation, Ron Harper Jr., would miss the game due to a minor ankle injury suffered in a recent practice. Every Rutgers fan coped in their own way, but I imagine most had that all too familiar pit in their stomach the size of the RAC before this game tipped off. A 6-0 start was dissolving quickly, leaving a fan base ready to scream down the tracks of a previously fun ride.
Except this Rutgers team is different. They proved it on Tuesday night. They don’t play with 30 years of angst on their shoulders. They play with a massive sized chip instead, determined to prove all the doubters wrong. In Tuesday’s 81-76 victory over Purdue, they proved many of their own fans wrong.
I don’t mean this as a slight. If you thought Rutgers had a good chance to win without Harper Jr., top 50 freshman Cliff Omoruyi, a clearly hobbled Jacob Young wearing a back brace and nursing a bruised hip, as well as captain Geo Baker having not looked like himself since returning from his own injury, I’d recommend you invest in some lottery tickets.
”Gutty, gritty win today for us against a program like Purdue, who I have a ton of respect for,” said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Matt Painter has done as good as a job as anybody building a great program. I knew they got inside guys, they got guys who can really shoot it. They are a very difficult team to prepare for in a couple days and we’ve been a little banged up physically, but I thought our guys came in and played with great energy, made plays down the stretch. I thought our defense at times was very good, got through a couple of days here with a lot of injuries and I thought we really earned that win tonight against a really, really good Purdue team.”
It was the heart and guts that this team played with that made it such an inspirational win. However, it was the shooting that actually delivered the victory.
Rutgers tied a program best in a Big Ten game by making 11 three’s on 21 attempts for 52%. They also made 11 of 12 free throws in the second half. All of this came without Harper Jr., who is averaging 23.7 points a game and shooting 50% from three-point range on the season.
Believe it or not, this team has become near elite on the offensive end through eight games this season. They now have the 17th highest offensive efficiency rating in college basketball and are 28th in the country in shooting 39.3% from three-point range. Stunning developments in Pikiell’s fifth season.
Regarding the three-point shooting, Pikiell said “We’ve improved a lot and credit to our guys. They’ve been in the gym and it’s nice having Geo back, another guy who can shoot the ball from deep. Jacob Young has been in the gym, Paul (Mulcahy) has been in the gym, Montez has been in the gym.” He continued, “I thought we got really good looks. I thought our guys were in range in rhythm. I thought our guys did a good job finding the open man. The way they defend, they (Purdue) kind of crowd the lane, so they give you those opportunities and we took advantage of it and they went in so it’s always a good day when they’re going in.”
The defense wasn’t particularly good overall, especially in the second half, as Purdue held a 42-28 advantage with points in the paint and shot 67% from two-point range. However, credit RU for contesting most three-point attempts and Purdue shot just 7 of 26 from deep for 27%. They also made key stops down the stretch.
Montez Mathis came to Rutgers as a 4-star recruit but I’ve always thought his toughness on both ends of the floor was the greatest asset he brought to the program. I remember thinking that during his freshman season when he got ejected against Minnesota and left Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon shocked at the fury he brought after feeling snubbed for not receiving an offer from the Terps as a recruit, his edge and refusal to back down was much needed within the program.
Mathis has been a reliable defender and rebounder that always looks to attack during his two previous seasons, but this winter he has been much improved offensively. He took a true star turn in the win over Purdue with a career high 25 points along with 5 rebounds. Mathis was a stunning 5 of 5 from three-point range, but also delivered the knockout punch on a banked in runner to put Rutgers up 7 late in the game. It was a brilliant performance.
“I just do whatever it takes to get the win,” Mathis said after the game. “I feel like I’ve put a lot of work in my three-point shot every day, and I just feel confident in myself with makes and misses. As long as I’m putting the work in, I can live with the results.”
Steve Pikiell admitted before the game that Geo Baker was “still trying to get his bounce back” and was looking to regain his confidence since returning from a high ankle sprain earlier this month. Thankfully, Rutgers got a vintage Geo performance from their captain on Tuesday night.
Baker finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 block and 0 turnovers in 37 minutes. Of course, with Geo it isn’t about the stats. He dove for loose balls three times in the early part of the game and made a key steal to kickstart the second half comeback, in addition to two key baskets and 4 of 4 from the foul line down the stretch. He has never been an efficient shooter, but there hasn’t been a more clutch player or better leader for Rutgers than Baker since the glory days of the late seventies. He is a true winner and this game hopefully marked his return to form long term.
“He’s a good player, so we need him to play like that. He’s a vocal leader too for us,” said Pikiell. “I thought his defense was really good too, he had to guard some tough guys. They have shooters, they have penetrators, they have a lot of different weapons that they can kind of attack you with. Geo looked like Geo and that ankle sprain was a bad ankle sprain. He’s been getting closer and closer and I think you saw that tonight. We needed everything. I couldn’t take him out of the game. Excited to have him play like that, but start to expect him to play like that, he’s a good player.”
Jacob Young earned his hero stripes and then some. The point guard was playing in obvious pain that seemed to get worse as the game progressed. After loosening up in the first half, he appeared to stiffen up after halftime and every play he made seemed to hurt him. However, he stuck it out and played 35 minutes. Young calmly knocked down four consecutive free throws in the closing seconds to help secure the victory. He finished with 13 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. Young was a warrior tonight and Rutgers would not have won without him. Baker said of his backcourt mate, “He’s a fighter, like the rest of us.”
With Rutgers trailing 53-48 and 10 and a half minutes left in the game, Mathis found a wide open Paul Mulcahy behind the arc and the sophomore knocked down the biggest shot of his Rutgers career. It started a 10-2 run that gave RU a lead they never surrendered the rest of the game. He finished with 11 points on 3 of 5 shooting from three-point range that highlighted his offensive improvement this season. Mulcahy also continued to scrap his way through the Big Ten and was on the floor with big man Trevion Williams at one point battling for a loose ball.
Pikiell commented, “I can’t take him out of the game, he’s banged up too. Paul has to guard bigger guys, sometimes he defends guards. I never get caught up in what the numbers say because I watch the film all the time and I see all the things that he does to help us win basketball games. He played great today, he really did, and we needed every one of his points.”
Even though Myles Johnson wasn’t a force, he finished with 5 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal and perhaps most importantly, 30 minutes played. He was able to stay out of foul trouble (2) and stay on the court in a game Rutgers couldn’t afford to be without him. He battled Purdue’s big men Trevion Williams and Zach Edey all night. Johnson came through the most with two and half minutes left in the game and Rutgers clinging to a 3 point lead. He got a huge defensive stop after forcing Williams to shoot short on a hook shot and grabbed the rebound.
“Myles stayed out of foul trouble, that was huge tonight too, but Myles is so important to us for a lot of different reasons. Especially when you play a team like this,” Pikiell said. “He alters shots and he’s a really good defender. He could score down low, (although) they are a tough team to attack down low because they’re so big and they double down a lot.”
Despite sticking almost exclusively to the starting five the last ten plus minutes of the game, Rutgers got much needed positive minutes from the bench. Dean Reiber had his best performance as a Scarlet Knight. He displayed his offensive potential with a move that he finished with a made jumper, grabbed 2 rebounds and held his own defensively. No Rutgers player came close to his +/- of 14 in the game. Oskar Palmquist won a loose ball diving on the floor for a steal, grabbed a rebound and knocked down a three-pointer in the corner. His willingness to guard Williams in spots showed his fearlessness that should benefit him later on. Mamadou Doucoure made a key contribution as well, finishing with 2 points, 3 rebounds and a steal in 10 important minutes.
Pikiell said, “Any guy that’s injured, especially in this league, you need everybody, but I thought our team responded the way we’re supposed to respond. Next guy was ready to play, tip of the hat. Dean Reiber hasn’t played a lot of minutes, he came in and gave us great minutes. Oskar (Palmquist) came in and made some plays. “Douc” (Mamadou Doucoure) came off the bench and had to wrestle with two of the biggest players in the conference and then everybody else stepped up.”
This game could be a real turning point in regard to getting more production out of the bench moving forward. Those three players were ready when called upon and that helps build confidence with the entire team.
“It’s a good team win tonight, good toughness and now we have to get these other guys back and healthy and get ready for this next stretch here,” said Pikiell.
Avoiding a second straight defeat was huge with no. 10 Iowa coming to the RAC on Saturday, followed by a road game against no. 17 Michigan State and then a rematch against no. 25 Ohio State to follow, all in the next week and a half.
“It was really important that we bounced back,” Baker said. “We felt like we let one go at Ohio State, and for the young guys, we tell them every day how much we believe in them. We all believe in each other. Every guy has the ability to step up and make plays and you saw it today. They had their numbers called today and they stepped up. That’s what a great team does.”
The no. 14 Scarlet Knights are now 7-1 on the season and off to a 3-1 start in Big Ten play for a second consecutive year. Due to the circumstances involved in the win over Purdue, it was the most satisfying victory so far this season.
Rutgers fans hope the roller coaster ride that this season has been so far continues to provide more thrills than they are used to. This team showed that’s likely after the type of performance they delivered on Tuesday night.
For a detailed review of injury updates for Rutgers, click here.