The Rutgers men’s basketball team swept the season series with Northwestern on Saturday night after a 64-50 victory at the RAC. The Scarlet Knights were led by Jacob Young’s 15 points off the bench and double-doubles from Myles Johnson (12 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks) and Ron Harper Jr. (14 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists). However, the performances of Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy stood out in the win and highlighted their importance to this team long term.
After Rutgers held a 41-27 lead less than two minutes into the second half, Northwestern methodically whittled down the deficit to a 3 point margin with just over ten minutes remaining.
Enter Mulcahy, who calmly knocked down two free throws to end a 13-2 run by the Wildcats. He then grabbed the rebound on the next Northwestern possession and found McConnell, who missed a three-pointer. McConnell was 1 of 8 from the field at that point. However, on the next two Rutgers possessions, McConnell connected from deep to push the lead to 51-42 with 7:45 to play.
Northwestern was only able to come as close as 7 points on just one occasion the rest of the way, ultimately losing by 14 points.
McConnell finished 10 points on 3 of 10 shooting, but his back to back makes from behind the arc changed the momentum for good. On a night that Rutgers only made four shots from three-point range on 19 attempts, McConnell came through big in that area. He grabbed the third most rebounds for Rutgers on the night with 7, as RU finished with a +12 rebounding margin. He also led the team with 3 assists, tied for a team high 2 steals and had zero turnovers. McConnell also finished with a team high +/- of 21 in 31 minutes of action.
His defense is consistently stellar and he covered multiple Northwestern players in the victory. He is the ultimate cooler, as Pikiell typically moves him around to defend whoever is heating up or a player of concern on the opposition.
Steve Pikiell said of McConnell after the game, “Caleb does a lot of things for us and he’s really become an anchor for our defense. He guards a lot of different people and he’s capable of making shots. He’s a really good foul shooter too and I think you saw down the stretch, he teed the ball up. I like when he plays with that kind of confidence. He also keeps a lot of balls alive for us, he does a lot of different things that you don’t see on the box score sometimes. He’s getting better, he’s feeling more and more comfortable and I love the fact that we can move him around. Caleb’s been doing a good job and he’s also rebounding for us. Last game he got 7, in this game he got 7 and that’s a huge part of us being able to out rebound teams.”
The fact that McConnell is even playing after planning to miss the entire season healing from a back injury is a minor miracle and should not be forgotten. The fact that he has become so productive of late is encouraging for the stretch run ahead to this season. Where would Rutgers be without him right now? That’s a thought I don’t want to ponder other than to give proper appreciation for how much McConnell has contributed since his return.
Geo Baker said of McConnell after the win over Minnesota last week, in which he also hit a crucial three down the stretch, “(He’s) just a winner. Doing all the little things. Fighting adversity, staying with it and finding a way to win. I think Caleb embodies all that.”
Mulcahy made an impact once again through straight desire and will. He wore a face guard due to a broken nose suffered in the loss to Iowa on Wednesday. In addition, he showed off his dislocated finger in the postgame press conference that was completely horizontal. With that context, even playing 26 minutes was huge for Rutgers. If he couldn’t have taken the court on Saturday, Pikiell would have been forced to go deeper in the bench than he has preferred to of late. Instead, Mulcahy delivered 6 points behind 4 of 4 shooting from the foul line, while adding 2 assists and 2 rebounds. A play that summed up his grittiness was a hard drive into traffic along the baseline in which he anticipated Harper Jr. cutting into the middle of the lane and found him with a sharp pass. Harper Jr. didn’t make the shot but he drew a foul and converted both attempts from the line. Mulcahy wasn’t credited with an assist, of course, but it was an example of a winning play.
Pikiell said of Mulcahy, “Paul, he’s been playing with a finger that was dislocated, he’s got a broken nose. He’s tough as can be and he was ready to go today. He does a lot of things for us, a lot things that you don’t read in the box score and he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached. So, I was thankful he said, ‘I’m playing’, but that’s just a credit to him and his toughness and to play through pain. He gets banged up in every single game, so he deserves a day off tomorrow. Playing for the first time with that mask on, I thought he did a really, really good job. We’ll get a custom mask for him so that’ll help him out a little bit more too, but he’s tough and thankful he was ready today to go.”
Mulcahy was the first high school player in New Jersey to average a triple-double in decades during his senior year and was a sought after national recruit. In fact, Chris Collins and Northwestern recruited him hard. While his passing ability, vision and IQ are his greatest skills, his tenacity and willingness to mix it up with the trees of the Big Ten has been his signature contribution this season. He is fearless and is loved by his teammates.
After the game, Harper Jr. said of Mulcahy, “It just shows who Paul is as a person. He broke his nose early in the Iowa game (Wednesday) and finished the rest of the game. It says a lot about Paul as a teammate, it says a lot about his character and it says a lot about his heart as well.”
On his injuries, Mulcahy gave credit to the program’s head trainer by stating, “It’s alright. Rich (Campbell) has been helping me every day with treatment. Everybody’s banged up. You’ve just got to play to win.”
McConnell and Mulcahy are sixth and seventh in scoring this season, respectively. However, a measure of the value and toughness that the two guards bring is that McConnell is third in rebounds per game, while Mulcahy is third in total rebounds and tied for fourth with center Cliff Omoruyi in rebounds per game. Together, they average 8 boards per game, which is significant but also speaks to the culture that Pikiell has built at Rutgers. It’s obvious they have both embraced that culture as well as anyone else on the team. They are also strong performers academically, as they both achieved GPA’s higher than 3.5 last semester.
Both McConnell and Mulcahy bring a blue collar, unselfish, team first attitude. However, it’s more than that. They both make winning plays. They are willing to do the little things and dirty work necessary for their team to be victorious in the end. Since the backcourt tandem has been inserted into the starting lineup and played extended minutes, the Scarlet Knights are 5-1. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence. They have established themselves as the glue that keeps this Rutgers team together and are a major reason why this program is steadily approaching its first NCAA Tournament berth in 30 years.