After leading for almost the entire game, no. 21 Rutgers lost its rhythm and fell behind to Syracuse 65-62 with 5:38 remaining on Tuesday night. The Scarlet Knights played extremely poor on defense up that point in the second half and were in danger of blowing an opportunity for a much needed win against the only high major non-conference opponent on the schedule. Without 8,000 screaming fans at the RAC to help carry them to victory, the veteran players showed their experience when it mattered most. Rutgers delivered a 17-4 closing run to win the game 79-69 and move to 4-0 on the season.
Jacob Young spurred the comeback after figuring out how to shred the Syracuse zone off the bounce in the second half. He was able to penetrate at will down the stretch and with Rutgers down 3 points he got to the foul line, converting both shots to cut the lead to 1. The speedy Rutgers point guard then pushed the pace on the break and found Myles Johnson for a dunk, followed by setting up Montez Mathis behind the arc, who stepped up to drain a big three. On the next possession, Young took matters into his own hands and scored on a drive before Paul Mulcahy found Ron Harper Jr. in transition and he finished on the break in traffic.
Over a three minute span the Scarlet Knights produced an impressive 11-0 run that knocked the Orange back on their heels and they never recovered. Rutgers led 73-65 with just 2:02 to play in the game. Mathis found Johnson inside, who converted a three-point play the hard way and Young knocked down 3 of 4 free throws to seal the 79-69 victory.
The turnaround on the defensive end was impressive down the stretch as well. Rutgers held Syracuse without a field goal in the final 5:38 of the game, forcing seven missed shots and a turnover. The Orange only scored four points in the closing stretch, all from the foul line.
“We showed we are a resilient team,” said Harper Jr. “We went up 10 points but they kept fighting back and punching us in our face. We fell behind and overcame adversity which I’m real proud of our team for that. We are a bunch of fighters as well.”
Head coach Steve Pikiell harped on the closing job of his team, stating “The last five and a half minutes, I thought toughness and rebounding and figuring out a way was great. Everybody contributed. Everyone made big plays for us.”
Regarding the adversity they overcame in the victory, Pikiell added, “We were in foul trouble today and had to play through a lot of obstacles, facing that zone for 40 minutes. It’s a really good zone with great length. But we showed some really good toughness and I’m proud of our guys, but it took everybody doing everything, the little things. The guys coming off the bench gave us some good minutes.” He continued, “We are down Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell, so we are down a couple guys. More guys had to contribute and I’m just really excited we were able to get this win tonight. It was a good game and we went through a lot of ups and down during it and we just kept plugging away. I’m really proud of that last five minutes, they didn’t score a basket. That was really good defense.”
On the importance of beating an ACC team in it’s only high profile non-conference game scheduled as of now, it was clear Rutgers knew they had to seize the moment. “We talked about Rutgers not having beaten Syracuse since 2003. This was a statement game,” said Johnson. “This is who we are and what we are going to do.”
The veteran core stepped up in a major way on a night that all four freshmen played over 30 minutes combined in the game but were held scoreless.
Harper Jr. dominated the action for most of the game, scoring a game high 26 points on 9 of 13 shooting and 5 of 8 from three-point range. He added 7 rebounds and 2 assists. However, it was the play of Young, Mathis and Johnson that helped close out the victory.
Mathis hit two big three’s in the second half and finished with 19 points on 6 of 14 shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. He was also an impressive 5 of 6 from the foul line after entering the game just 4 of 10 through the first three games.
Young finished with 18 points on 6 of 13 shooting, as well as 5 of 6 from the charity stripe, including 3 of 4 in the final minute. Rutgers turned in its best performance from the line, making 14 of 18 shots for 77%, Young also completed his first double by adding 10 assists along with 5 steals.
Johnson had his best game of the young season, playing an important 28 minutes and producing his own double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. He helped key the big advantage Rutgers held on the glass over Syracuse, finishing with a +16 rebounding margin.
The Scarlet Knights also outperformed the Orange from three-point range, making 9 of 24 attempts for 37.5%. They held the visitors to just 7 of 26 from behind the arc for only 26.9%. Johnson said the Rutgers game plan was to “make the open pass and get people open on the wings. We made more three’s than them, which I think is a big statement. Syracuse shoots a bunch of three’s.”
While Rutgers struggled defensively for a large portion of the second half, they buckled down when they needed to most. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the loss that “Rutgers is a really good defensive team. To get up three, we still messed up two transition plays. Just losing the ball in transition and we can’t do that against a really good team. We gave ourselves an opportunity to win and then we made two or three bad plays. Our defense broke down and their point guard got all the way to the basket and got two layups.
The Scarlet Knights experience showed up in a big way to close out the victory. Harper Jr. has not only become the star of the team but he has taken on a larger leadership role in Geo Baker’s absence.
Harper Jr. explained, “We all have each other’s backs and all care about each other. “With Geo hurt we are missing a leader out there, so I’m just trying to be more vocal.” He continued, “We always have that next man up mentality. I’m always preaching to our guys that we believe in you just as much as the next man. Being a leader is real important, especially with the young guys who are quick to get down on themselves. I try to have everybody’s back to try to keep everybody’s head on straight and keep fighting as a team. We have things to improve on. When adversity hits, all we have is each other out there. Take it on the chest and it’s all about how we answer. It’s all about how we respond.”
On Tuesday night, with the game slipping away and its unquestioned leader still out with an injury, Rutgers responded like good teams do. They won going away and it’s a great sign ahead of Big Ten play beginning next week.