No one said this would be easy. Rutgers trailed by as many as 18 points in the game and 15 in the second half, but completed an improbable comeback that was led by its unquestioned leader Geo Baker. After a month of injury and struggling since he returned, Baker exploded for 25 points, 23 coming after the half, making big shot after big shot down the stretch to lead Rutgers to a 77-73 victory. They avoided disaster against the Big Ten’s last place team in Northwestern and in doing so, clinched the program’s first winning season in 14 years.
Northwestern opened up a 13-3 lead behind three three-pointers in the first three and a half minutes of the game. It was an awful beginning for Rutgers, who continued to struggle to find good shots, were fouling often and sloppy with the basketball. They continued to trail by double digits down 19-7 with 11:24 left in the first half. There was zero energy in the building despite the sellout crowd and no one could blame the fans for that. The defense was getting shredded by the passing of Northwestern.
With Rutgers not having scored in over three minutes, the Wildcats beat them at their own game grabbing two offensive rebounds and scoring to make it a 14 point lead. After a bit of a back and forth, Miller Kopp hit back to back three’s to put Rutgers in a improbable 29-11 deficit.
A Ron Harper Jr. fadeaway jumper tickled the twine with 7:35 to play, but Northwestern continued to make shots and led 35-18 with 3:48 remaining in the opening frame. Ironically, Rutgers was able to end the half on a crucial 9-3 run due to making 5 consecutive free throws, including a three-point play the hard way from Shaq Carter. Geo Baker hit his first jumper of the game to send RU to the locker rooms trailing 38-27.
Northwestern was 6 of 15 from three-point range in the first half while Rutgers was 0 of 9. The Wildcats even held a 20-14 edge with points in the paint, which was even more surprising. Overall, Northwestern shot 50% from the floor while Rutgers was only at 33%.
The first offensive possession for the Scarlet Knights to start the second half was an alley-oop pass from Ron Harper Jr. to Myles Johnson for the monster slam. Unfortunately, Northwestern’s Boo Buie hit his fourth three-pointer of the game and Johnson was called for a foul on the next offensive possession for RU. After the Wildcats broke the fullcourt press, Kopp’s shot fake got him a wide open three-pointer and he drained it. Rutgers was down 44-29 just a minute and a half into the second half.
Defensive breakdowns continued, as Akwasi Yeboah and Caleb McConnell covered the same man and it led to a Jared Jones basket. Rutgers responded as Geo Baker made a step back three, the first make from behind the arc in the game for the home team. However, the momentum was short lived, as Jones scored again and Montez Mathis turned it over on the next possession with an offensive foul.
After Yeboah made two free throws and was 8 of 8 from the line at that point of the game, Pete Nance made Northwestern’s 9th shot of the game from three-point range and Yeboah was called for an offensive foul on the next possession. Soon after, Myles Johnson was called for his third foul and went to the bench with more than 14 minutes to play.
Baker drained a jumper to make it 52-38 and then trailing 58-44 with less than nine minutes to play, he missed a one and one from the free throw line, grabbed the rebound and drained a three. However, Pat Spencer scored a layup in transition off of the inbounds pass as Rutgers failed to get back on defense. Still, Baker made another fadeaway jumper and was followed by Johnson finding Yeboah in the paint out of a double team and his basket made it 62-52 with 6:52 to play.
The RAC faithful were doing their part to help Rutgers complete the comeback
Ball movement was much better for the Scarlet Knights in the second half and on a Myles Johnson kickback found McConnell wide open from behind the arc, he knocked it down to set the crowd on fire with RU down 8 points. Rutgers drew a charge on the next Northwestern possession, but Yeboah turned it over on the next trip down the court.
Still, after Ron Harper Jr. made a bank shot jumper to make it 64-57 and Yeboah drawing a charge soon after, Rutgers was incredibly still in the game with 4:34 to play. After a timeout, McConnell made a difficult corner fadeaway and the deficit was down to 5 points. Rutgers had made 6 of its last 8 shots, were on a 11-2 run and Northwestern hadn’t made a field goal in over three minutes.
After Rutgers got a big stop on the defensive end, Baker found Harper Jr. down low, who made the layup, drew the foul, but missed the free throw. Northwestern led 64-61 with 3:30 remaining. After another defensive stop, Baker split defenders and made an incredible layup with contact to cut the lead to 1.
Miller Kopp hit a big jumper to extend the lead to 3 and Yeboah turned it over on a double dribble with 2 minutes to play. Rutgers got the stop on the next Northwestern possession and Baker had the ball with over a minute to play. He did it again, a step back three tied the game at 66 as Northwestern called a timeout with exactly 1:00 to play.
Buie missed early in the shot clock and Yeboah grabbed the rebound. Steve Pikiell called timeout and of course called Baker’s number. However, on a isolation play he surprisingly passed to Harper Jr., who took an open three-point attempt and it rimmed in and out. Northwestern called a timeout with 11.1 seconds remaining. Rutgers played good defense and forced Buie driving east-west and he threw up a bad shot as regulation ended with it tied at 66.
In overtime, Rutgers took its first lead of the game after Harper Jr. made one of two free throws after Johnson found him cutting to the basket on an offensive rebound. Johnson had missed two previously so they went just 1 of 4 from the lions on the first possession of OT. Kopp missed a jumper for Northwestern and Baker attacked the rim on the other end, making a layup, drawing the foul, and making the free throw to complete the three-point play.
After a Northwestern turnover, Baker was feeling it but missed a jumper. Buie then hit a huge three-pointer to cut the lead to 1 with 2:40 to play. After McConnell rebounded a Harper Jr miss, Yeboah answered with a monster three of his own from the corern to make it 73-69 with just under 2 minutes remaining. Pat Spencer made two free throws to cut it to a 2 point lead for Rutgers.
Another isolation play for Baker resulted in a contested jumper that went in again, but Young answered for Northwestern on the other end. It was 75-73 with 40.7 second left in OT. After another iso play for Baker, he dribbled to the corner and made yet another fadeaway, as his cape was starting to show out of the back of his jersey. Rutgers completed an 18 point comeback and preserved its undefeated record at the RAC this season.
Geo Baker saved the day in the second half, as he was scoreless up until the last possession right before halftime. He finished with 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting, as well as 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Rutgers is not the same team when Baker isn’t playing well and we have seen how good they can be when he does. His performance gives hope he will be back to his old self the rest of the way this season.
Akwasi Yeboah had 13 points and 8 rebounds, while Ron Harper Jr. had 10 points and 5 rebounds. Myles Johnson finished with 6 points and 10 rebounds, while McConnell had 9 points and 6 rebounds.
Rutgers held Northwestern to 37.0% shooting after halftime and actually outshot them for the game, 46% to 42%. They also dominated the boards with a +19 rebounding margin. Although Northwestern only committed 4 turnovers and held an edge with points in the paint 32-28, but it didn’t matter. They were also 11 of 23 from three while RU was just 4 of 20. A big difference was at the free throw line. As Rutgers had 15 more makes on 22 more attempts.
The first half performance was very concerning, but Rutgers showed what a tough team they are with their never say die attitude. This is the kind of game this program has lost year over year, so in a way they needed to be on the brink of disaster to show that this team truly is different. Switching to McConnell at the point down the stretch was a smart move by Pikiell, as it freed up Baker to move off the ball in the second half. The defense tightened up and Baker made so many big shots to pull out the victory. Eight conference wins is the most for Rutgers in Big Ten play since joining six seasons ago.
Up Next, Rutgers (17-7; 8-5) heads back on the road to face Ohio State (15-8; 5-7) on Wednesday in Columbus. This game tonight could prove to be what gets them back in the right mindset after not playing their best basketball of late. They overcame a potential disaster and most importantly, have its leader in Baker back in top form. A win on the road against the Buckeyes would do wonders for their NCAA Tournament resume. The dream continues with seven games left in the regular season.