In the final regular season game at the RAC on Tuesday night, Rutgers earned its biggest win in arguably its best performance all year. After a physical battle in the first half that resulted in a similar back and forth to the first meeting earlier this season, Rutgers put together a tremendous second half effort that stunned no. 9 Maryland. It resulted in an impressive 78-67 victory that significantly boosted its NCAA Tournament resume.
After a feeling out period up until the first media timeout, Jacob Young made his presence known after missing the first meeting due to suspension. Geo Baker found him in the corner in front of Maryland’s bench and he drained a three-pointer. Soon after he made a great ball fake, followed by a floater in the lane for another quick basket. He then knocked down two more three’s and made a great pass on the break to Paul Mulcahy, who scored on a layup to put Rutgers up 19-8. Maryland called a timeout with 9:11 left in the half and the RAC was rocking.
Maryland regained its composure and after scoring back to back baskets, Ron Harper Jr. was called for a technical foul for foul language. After a timeout, Anthony Cowan made both, but shot a desperation air ball three with the shot clock winding down as Rutgers responded with a tremendous defensive set. Montez Mathis then hit a contested jumper with his toe barely on the three-point line, but Cowan continued to dominate on the offensive end. He was able to penetrate at will, as even Young had trouble keeping the Maryland star in front of him.
With Rutgers only leading 23-20 after a 12-4 run by the Terps, Geo Baker stepped up in a big way. Out of a timeout in the middle of an offensive possession, the shot clock was running out with Mamadou Doucoure with the ball in his hands. He made a great pass across the the court to Baker, who shot it a good 30 feet away and drained a three for his first points of the game. He scored 9 of the final 12 points of the half for RU, who went to the locker room leading Maryland 35-29.
The defensive intensity was where it needed to be in the opening frame, as the Terps were held to 34% shooting from the field and were a horrible 2 of 16 from three-point range. Rutgers forced them to settle for shots behind the arc most of the half and Maryland struggled to generate any flow on offense. They also held Jalen Smith to just 5 points on 4 shots. Offensively, Rutgers was doing a good job of sharing the basketball and getting good looks off of ball screens. They shot 42% from the field including 4 of 8 from three-point range. They held a 12-7 advantage in points off of turnovers and held a +2 edge on the boards.
The second half began with Maryland getting the ball inside to Jalen Smith, but his shot rimmed out. After both teams failed to score on ensuing possessions, Mathis made a great dribble move behind his back and drew the foul. He made 1 of 2. On the next possession, Mathis made the extra pass as Rutgers reversed the basketball and Akwasi Yeboah knocked down a three at the top of the arc.
The defensive pressure continued as the Terps opened the second half 1 of 5 from the field, as Shaq Carter scored, followed by a block by Yeboah. In transition, Mathis turned around and dished it to Harper Jr., who made his first basket of the game behind the arc to give Rutgers a 44-31 lead with just over 17 minutes remaining. Mark Turgeon called a timeout with the RAC going wild.
Maryland went back to Smith who made a great move for a basket and scored on the next possession off an offensive rebound. The lead was quickly back to single digits. However, it didn’t last long, as Baker got into the paint and made a beautiful no look pass to Mathis, who scored at the rim and drew the foul. He missed the free throw after the media timeout. Rutgers led 46-35 with over 15 minutes left to play.
After a defensive stop, Rutgers continued to share the basketball and off a ball reversal, Harper Jr. made a jab step and drained a three-pointer with Aaron Wiggins in his face. After another defensive stop, Yeboah made a careless turnover that got him sent to the bench. However, Rutgers made another defensive stop as Maryland fell to 2 of 20 from three-point range and Mathis calmly knocked down a deep jumper to put RU up 51-35.
On an inbounds play, Cowan found Wiggins, who drew a foul on Mulcahy and scored the basket. He missed the foul shot and Yeboah was back in and grabbed the rebound. After a lengthy review from the officials after the shot clock mistakenly stopped during a Rutgers possession. Mulcahy made a great inbounds pass to Myles Johnson who took it strong at the rim and finished. After Jalen Smith answered with a huge three for the Terps, Mulcahy made another great pass to Yeboah, who finished in traffic but didn’t get the foul call.
Jacob Young got back in the action and scored in transition to give Rutgers a commanding 57-40 lead with just over 12 minutes to play.
Out of the media timeout and Rutgers leading 59-42, Baker drove through the Maryland defense and dunked it to take a game high 19 point lead. Rutgers was dominating the Terps on the boards in the second half at this stage, holding a 15-7 edge that helped seize control of the game.
Both teams fell into a slump offensively, as Rutgers missed 4 shots in a row and Maryland hadn’t made a field goal in over 4 minutes. The Scarlet Knights snapped out of it as Mathis stole it and scored a layup in traffic to put RU up 64-44 with 7:48 to play, forcing another Maryland timeout. The RAC was rocking once again as Anthony Cowan was still scoreless in the second half.
The star guard for Maryland showed his frustration after getting called for a hook and hold foul on Mulcahy, which was reversed correctly after the call initially went against Rutgers. Mulcahy calmly drained both free throws. After Eric Ayala made a three to cut the lead to 18, Mathis made a great cut to the basket and slammed down an emphatic dunk with Smith near the rim on a good pass from Young.
Leading 72-54 with four minutes to play, Maryland was able to cut the lead to 14 points despite Turgeon being so frustrated he subbed out all of his starters. The final score was 78-67, but it wasn’t nearly that close as Rutgers had the issue in hand as the stretch run of the game arrived. The RAC faithful stormed the court with well deserved glee.
What a performance from Rutgers when they needed it most. Defensively, they forced the Terps into bad shots and never allowed them to get into an offensive rhythm. Maryland shot just from the field, including from three-point range. Despite Cowan scoring 19 points and Smith scoring 16, they worked for every basket and no other player scored in double digits. They did a great job not letting the supporting cast beat them. The Terps shot just 38% from the field and a horrific 19% from three, making just 6 of 32 attempts.
Many players stepped up for Rutgers in this great victory. Jacob Young gave them a huge lift to get started, scoring 11 points in the first eight minutes of the game. He finished with a team high 17 points on 7 of 10 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Young’s energy and explosiveness was an asset in this game.
Montez Mathis, a Baltimore native, played with an edge and intensity that led to his best big game performance of the season. He finished with 15 points on 6 of 10 shooting, as well as 3 rebounds, 2 assists and great defense.
Geo Baker stepped up at the end of the first half to steady his team and kept things moving on the offensive end in the second half, finishing with 11 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds and a block.
Balanced scoring was huge tonight, as Myles Johnson, Akwasi Yeboah and Ron Harper Jr. each had 9 points. All three were huge on the glass as well, as Johnson and Yeboah finished with 8 rebounds, while Harper Jr. had 7 boards. Paul Mulcahy had moments as well and finished with 4 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal and 0 turnovers.
Rutgers shot 49% from the field and an impressive 7 of 16 for 43.8% from three-point range. Great ball movement led to good shot selection, which was key in the win. They assisted on 17 of 30 field goals in the game.
What I loved most about tonight’s performance was the fight and attitude that Rutgers played with. They came at Maryland from the opening tip on and played with an edge. The Scarlet Knights never backed down against a top ten team in the country and refused to let the Terps even contemplate the idea they’d win a share of the Big Ten title tonight. It was as satisfying a performance from this program as I can remember in many years.
They finished 18-1 at the RAC this season, the most wins for the program in the 43 year old building’s history. Rutgers is now 19-11 overall and 10-9 in Big Ten play. They clinched an opening round bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament and earned 10 conference wins for the first time since the 1990-1991 season, the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament.
Up next, Rutgers travels to Purdue (15-14; 8-10) for its last true road game of the season. They beat the Boilermakers by 7 at the RAC, but the Scarlet Knights have come up short on the road in its last six games. However, after tonight’s victory, they should have plenty of confidence on Saturday that they can finally break through. Buckle up Rutgers fans, this is going to be a March we’ve all waited for over the years and it is finally here!