PISCATAWAY — Leadership and veteran presence cannot be downplayed in college basketball.
When Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. decided to return to Rutgers, it gave the Scarlet Knights a renewed sense of urgency. This was supposed to be key down the stretch of the season but fans got an early-season taste on Tuesday night.
Harper Jr. and Baker combined to score 39 points as Rutgers used a big second half to take down NJIT 75-61 at Jersey Mike’s Arena.
NJIT (1-2) came into the contest having played the same schedule as Rutgers — a 17-point victory over Lehigh and an eight-point loss to Merrimack. Over the first 20 minutes, the Highlanders gave Rutgers (3-0) fits.
For the third time in three games, the Scarlet Knights trailed at halftime to what was viewed as an inferior opponent. Despite a one-point deficit, this one felt a bit different.
NJIT knocked down 7-of-13 attempts from beyond the arc while Rutgers was just 3-for-11. The Scarlet Knights shot 42% from the field compared to NJIT’s 40% over the first 20 minutes but the three-point line was the different.
Baker was the only Scarlet Knight able to get anything going — scoring 11 of his 19 points in the first half.
Rutgers came out firing in the second half on both ends. It outscored NJIT 27-12 over the first 10 minutes to build a 14-point cushion. This is where Harper Jr. began to take over. He scored 14 of his team-high 20 points in the second half while grabbing 13 rebounds for the game. It was his third straight double-double to start the season.
The Highlanders had trouble scoring to begin the second half and went through a stretch where they did not convert a field goal for over five minutes. They were able to get the lead down to six but no further. After an Antwuan Butler three with 15 minutes left in the second half, the Scarlet Knights went on a 17-4 win over the next six minutes to gain control of the contest.
Rutgers struggled from deep once again, finishing just 5-of-19. They shot 42% from the floor and were 14-for-21 from the foul line in the victory. They held NJIT to 38% from the floor and even though they made 11 three’s, they missed their last five attempts to finish at 38%.
The Scarlet Knights will play away from home for the first time this season on Thursday as they travel to Wintrust Arena in Chicago to face DePaul.
The key to winning on the road and winning close games is having closers that can get a basket when needed. If Tuesday was any indication, Rutgers should have two for the duration of the season.