PISCATAWAY — Survive and advance — the mantra of the NCAA Tournament.
On a night where Rutgers unveiled a banner celebrating its first appearance in the big dance in 30 years, that is exactly what the Scarlet Knights did.
Rutgers needed five extra minutes to get past Lehigh in the season-opener in front of a packed house at the newly-named Jersey Mike’s Arena. The Scarlet Knights took control of the extra period and picked up an overtime victory 73-70 against a feisty Lehigh team.
Cliff Omoruyi led Rutgers with 16 points and nine rebounds while Ron Harper Jr. added 14 points, 10 rebounds and 4 steals. Newcomer Aundre Hyatt was solid in his debut, scoring 8 points, grabbing 4 rebounds and blocking 2 shots.
Fans returned to the building for the first time in two years to watch Rutgers basketball live and in person. The festivities began early with a banner reveal and Harper Jr. being given a ball to celebrate his 1,000th point.
The air was quickly taken out of the building in the first half.
Rutgers was sleepwalking through the first 20 minutes and found themselves trailing heading into the locker room. Lehigh led for the final 15:11 of the first half with the Scarlet Knights getting even just once.
The Scarlet Knights came out in the second half with an aggressive tone but Lehigh was able to withstand the run. Teams went back and forth, missing shots from three-point range, over the final 20 minutes of regulation.
The three-point line continued to be an enemy for Rutgers. It finished just 1-for-13 from beyond the arc.
Geo Baker knocked down the only three of the game for Rutgers but it was his midrange game that saved the Scarlet Knights from the early blemish on their resume. He finished with 12 points, 4 steals and 3 assists.
Trailing by two with less than a minute remaining, Rutgers put the ball in Baker’s hands and he delivered a clutch jump shot to tie the game at 63 with 45 seconds remaining. The Scarlet Knights were able to get a stop with a chance to win it at the end. A Baker three-point attempt was off the mark.
Rutgers took control right away in overtime. The Scarlet Knights went on an 8-2 run in the extra period thanks to some work down low from Omoruyi. Rutgers was able to hang on in the end despite some poor shooting from deep and an inconsistent night from the line. The Scarlet Knights finished with seven misses at the line but finished in making 18 of 25 attempts for 72.0% overall.
A win is a win as fans got to go home happy after seeing their Scarlet Knights play live for the first time in over 600 days. A gritty, grind-it-out win is never bad to begin the season but Rutgers has some things to work on. This is a team that can only improve from here.