The final game of the regular season was the last chance for Rutgers to deliver a much needed road victory, the one chink in the armor of its NCAA I Tournament resume. Doing so against Purdue in Mackey Arena, a venue they’ve lost by an average of 28 points the past three seasons, on senior day no less was an extremely difficult task. However, this team proved once again they are a special group that doesn’t back down to any team or any situation. Behind another Superman type performance from Geo Baker, who hit so many big shots down the stretch, they outlasted Purdue for a season defining 71-68 overtime victory.
The difference from the outset was that Rutgers finally had a solid start to a road game, as they jumped out to a 11-7 lead after making its first three shots from behind the arc. Defensively, they were playing with intensity and offensively continued to share the basketball. Six players had at least 4 points and were led by Akwasi Yeboah with 8. Of course, the Boilermakers stormed back and went on a 15-6 run to lead 22-17 with 6:46 remaining in the first half.
The Scarlet Knights continued to shoot well from behind the arc, as Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. each made two in the half. Shaq Carter stepped up in a big way and scored 6 points down the stretch of the opening frame and Jacob Young scored 5 points. Rutgers was able to slow Purdue down and went to the locker room leading 36-33.
Purdue struggled shooting wise in the first half, making just 38% from the field and only 3 of 13 from deep. However, they were a perfect 8 of 8 from the free throw line, forced 9 turnovers from Rutgers and held a 10-6 edge in points off of them. However, the Scarlet Knights were an amazing 6 of 9 from three-point range and were dominating on the glass, holding a +10 rebounding margin in the opening frame. They were +6 on the offensive glass and it led to a 7-2 advantage on second chance points.
After Yeboah hit a three on the second possession of the half to give Rutgers a 39-33 lead, Purdue responded with an 8-0 run to take a 2 point lead with 16 minutes to play. While it was a concern perhaps the Scarlet Knights were about to fall apart on senior day in West Lafayette, Myles Johnson threw a beautiful pass to Ron Harper Jr. for an alley-oop dunk out of the timeout. Both Harper Jr. and Johnson scored baskets soon after to retake the lead 45-43 with just over 13 minutes remaining.
The defense continued to be strong on both ends of the court as neither team scored for a four minute stretch. Montez Mathis scored a tough basket to give RU a four point lead midway through the second half, but Sasha Stefanovic broke the drought for Purdue soon after.
The Boilermakers were a totally different team on the glass in the second half and Matt Haarms slammed home a third chance on a possession to give the home team a 49-47 lead with 7:23 to play as Steve Pikiell called a timeout. Purdue was +11 on the boards at this point in the second half.
With Rutgers trailing by 1 with just under six minutes to play, Geo Baker hit a massive three-pointer that was contested to regain the lead. Of course, Stefanovic answered from deep on the other end and Purdue led 52-51 with just five minutes remaining.
Myles Johnson was called for a charge for his fourth foul of the game soon after. After Rutgers got the stop and Baker drew a foul to get into the bonus, he missed the front end of the one and one. However, RU got the defensive stop on the next Purdue possession and Baker made up for it, scoring a very tough shot in traffic near the rim. Rutgers led 53-52 at the final media timeout of the game with 3:43 left to play.
Out of the timeout, Carter grabbed a huge rebound off a Stefanovic missed three off a double screen and Baker continued to take control. He split the double team and scored on a layup to put Rutgers up three. Haarms put down a dunk to cut the lead to 1 with three minutes remaining.
After Jacob Young missed a jumper, Mathis made a great hustle play to come up with the offensive rebound and Pikiell wisely called a timeout. Baker’s number was called again and he came through with a huge jumper to give RU a 57-54 lead and 2:25 to play.
On the next Purdue possession, Johnson fouled Haarms along the perimeter with the shot clock winding down and was out of the game with five fouls. Carter came back in as Haarms made just 1 of 2. Rutgers led by 2 with the ball and 1:45 left in the game.
Baker found Mathis who attacked the rim and drew the foul on Haarms and he came through in the clutch, making both free throws to make it a two possession game. However, Stefanovic made a huge three on the other end to cut the lead to 1 point with 1:16 remaining.
Rutgers continued to attack the rim and Jacob Young drew the foul with 57 seconds left in the game and leading 59-58. He missed both. The Scarlet Knights got back on defense and Purdue head coach Matt Painter called a 30 second timeout with 40 seconds left to play. Out of the timeout, Eric Hunter Jr. scored on a layup to give the Boilermakers a 1 point lead and 30 seconds to play.
With the game on the line, Geo Baker took a fadeaway contested jumper and MADE IT with 14 seconds to play. Rutgers led 61-60 as Painter called another 30 second timeout with 10 seconds remaining.
Hunter Jr. took a jumper for Purdue and Harper Jr. was called for a foul as he went for the rebound. A 77% free throw shooter, Hunter Jr. made the first but MISSED the second. On to overtime we went tied at 61.
Jacob Young seemed determined to make up for his last minute missed free throws in regulation as he scored on the first possession of overtime. After Rutgers got a defensive stop, Shaq Carter missed a shot near the rim and Purdue took advantage, as Hunter Jr. tied the game on the other end. However, Young attacked the rim and dunked on the seven footer Haarms, drawing the foul and making the free throw to give Rutgers a 66-63 lead with over three minutes to play in OT.
Stefanovic missed a three and after Baker grabbed an offensive rebound, Yeboah turned it over on a walk. However, the Rutgers defense continued to play tough as Hunter Jr. missed a contested shot near the rim. Carter grabbed the rebound and Pikiell called a timeout with 2:13 left in the extra session.
Out of the timeout, Young took a three with the shot clock winding down and missed. The ball went out of bounds and was called Purdue ball, but the officials reviewed it. It stayed that way and with under two minutes to play, Stefanovic tied the game with his fifth three-pointer of the game and 1:37 to play. Baker hit the deck but no foul was called.
Rutgers with its biggest possession of the game, Baker drove and found Mathis in the corner, who made the extra pass to Ron Harper Jr. who drained the three for the 69-66 lead and one minute remaining. However, Young was correctly called for the push on Eric Hunter Jr. on a three-point attempt. He made the first, missed the second and made the third. With Rutgers up 1, Geo Baker made ANOTHER contested fadeaway jumper and his foot right on the three-point line.
On the last possession of the game, Rutgers didn’t let Purdue get off a good shot and the game clock expired. They did it, putting together a gutsy performance to deliver a much needed road win!
The defense was sensational as Purdue shot just 34% from the field and only made 7 of 29 three-point attempts (24%). On the flip side, Rutgers was 44% from the field and an amazing 9 of 18 from behind the arc. Even though they were just 8 of 14 from the foul line, while Purdue was 17 of 21, it didn’t matter. They weren’t able to run in transition as much as they would have liked, but they were able to win behind big shot making and relentless defense.
Geo Baker was phenomenal and single handily put Rutgers on his back down the stretch. He made 5 monster shots at the end of the second half and in overtime to keep Rutgers out in front with the lead. Baker finished with a team high 19 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
Ron Harper Jr. was huge as well, scoring 15 points including 3 of 4 from three-point range, as well as 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. Akwasi Yeboah had 11 points and 5 rebounds, while Jacob Young had 10 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists. Montez Mathis was so good defensively and finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds. Give Shaq Carter credit as well, who finished with 6 points and 6 rebounds in 26 minutes, as Myles Johnson (2 points, 6 rebounds) fouled out down the stretch of regulation.
This was the game that proved without a doubt that Rutgers is a NCAA Tournament worthy team. They played their guts out with so many players contributing against a team fighting for its postseason lives that they’ve never beaten on the road. This team has taken its lumps on the road, falling short many times this season. However, they never stopped believing no matter who or where they played and finally came through in the last game on the schedule before the postseason.
Rutgers finishes the regular season with a 20-11 record and its first ever winning Big Ten campaign at 11-9. What a season its been and what a March it’s setup to be, as RU is 2-0 heading into next week. Up next, Rutgers will wait for the Big Ten Tournament bracket to be finalized. They will be seeded 8th or 9th and play Michigan at noon on Thursday, March 12. It seems appropriate for Rutgers to have one more chance against the one team they struggled against the most this season. At this stage, it’s hard to doubt this team against anyone.