It was sometime last season that the thought of having to write about Geo Baker’s senior night crept into my mind. I quickly realized it was something I dreaded. For as much as he has meant to this program, the idea of having to properly capture the emotions of the moment in which he would last play at the RAC seemed daunting. And the whole idea of it being his last game at the RAC was not something I really wanted to come to grips with.
Well, that moment arrived on Wednesday night....maybe. The strangeness of living through a global pandemic has been highlighted through sports and senior night for Rutgers basketball is just another example. With the NCAA granting a free year of eligibility, Baker and his fellow seniors are able to return next season if they want to. However, nothing has been announced and the program rightly honored all six seniors who are set to graduate.
What we do know for sure is that the dream of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years was in critical condition midway through the first half on Wednesday night against Indiana.
When Aljami Durham’s three-pointer banked in to give Indiana a 23-8 lead with 9:42 remaining in the first half, it seemed like everything that could go wrong was. Rutgers was 0 of 7 from three-point range, was minus-8 on the boards and were called for a violation due to someone blowing a whistle from the stands. If senior night for this memorable group of players was supposed to be a fairytale, it seemed like it was being written by Stephen King.
And then, like he has so many times before in his Rutgers career, Geo Baker rose to the occasion once again.
Arguably the best extended stretch of his career resulted, as Baker took over the game in the final eight minutes of the first half. He made four consecutive three-pointers, dished out four assists, grabbed two rebounds and had one block. Rutgers ended the opening frame on a 27-8 run and lead the Hoosiers 35-31 at the break. The Scarlet Knights led by as many at 20 in the second half before winning 74-63 after Indiana scored the last 8 points of the game.
“A great game tonight,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “I only wish all our fans could have been there to enjoy it. Our guys, the seniors, they really were ready to play. We never flinched, they got down and they just kept playing. Our defense was elite in that stretch. A lot of great efforts, from everybody.”
Not only was Baker’s hot hand from behind the arc crucial to the outcome, but two of his assists found Ron Harper Jr. open from three and the Julius Erving Award finalist finally broke through a month long shooting slump to knock down two shots from deep that was a big part of the game busting run. Harper Jr. let out a huge smile after his fourth make from three later in the game and you could feel the massive weight of his shooting struggles fall off his shoulders. He finished with 20 points on 8 of 12 shooting, including 4 of 7 from three, 8 rebounds and 2 steals.
As for Baker, his night was one for the ages whether it ends up being his last game at the RAC or not. He also finished with 20 points on 7 of 13 from the floor, including 6 of 11 from three-point range. Baker also had 10 assists for the double-double, as well as 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a block.
Geo Baker’s greatness has never been in the stats though, but has been in the moments. His leadership and ability to excel when it’s needed most is the defining characteristic of his Rutgers career.
“I felt like we got back to having fun today,” Baker said. “The best part about it was we faced adversity early in the game but no one hung their head. We stuck to the game plan and all we thought about was winning the game.”
When asked about Baker’s performance, head coach Steve Pikiell said, “He’s done that a lot of times and he’s had to fight through a lot of injuries. To come in here at 150 pounds, playing in this league, but he’s done that for us and during that stretch, he was terrific. Guys were getting him the ball and I thought that was tremendous, but I really liked that we shared the ball, we ran the floor, we made the extra passes, we made the extra defensive efforts, and Geo played really well defensively for us. He was locked in. When he’s locked in, he could do those kinds of things and it was a great senior night for a guy who’s meant a lot to us and has done a lot, had a lot of big nights here.”
Fellow seniors that were honored and also had big nights included Jacob Young and Myles Johnson.
Young was fantastic in penetrating the lane and looking for teammates open along the perimeter. His unselfishness helped Rutgers get hot from three due to getting open looks within the flow of the offense. He finished with 10 points and 7 assists.
On a night when Rutgers blocked 10 shots, Johnson swatted a career high 7 along with posting a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“I think he and Jacob Young, two of the better defenders in the country quite honestly, but Myles is an anchor in the back,” said Pikiell. “Every night he plays against unbelievable post players, we (the Big Ten) by far have the best post players of any league and it not even close. Every night he has to go up and down the court with some elite post players and every night he does his job. He’s able to guard guards, we switch on him, he’s really improved so much on that end of the floor and today he got the ball around the basket. He did a really good job of finishing, 7 blocks, he probably altered three or four more. Myles just continues to do great things on both ends of the floor and happy for him on senior night to be rewarded. Again, I thought he did a real good job.”
Baker and Johnson have been roommates for four years. Rutgers fans surely hope it continues for one more year, but even if it doesn’t, Baker’s impact on the program will last forever.
He came to Rutgers with no other high major offers and a chip on his shoulder. Pikiell reminded Baker often that he was ranked 414th in the 2017 recruiting class.
“I never even knew that until people here kept bringing it up,” Baker said. “I didn’t even know that was a thing. I didn’t know they ranked people to that number.”
On a night that Baker might have played his last game at the RAC, he set Rutgers single game marks in Big Ten play with 10 assists and six made threes, while moving up the all-time ranks in program history. He is now 6th in assists, 7th in three-pointers, tied for 9th in steals and is 21st in scoring.
It was an epic night for him and the team, who at 13-9 overall and 9-9 in Big Ten play are on the cusp of breaking the 30 year NCAA Tournament drought. They have a KenPom ranking of 26 and a NET ranking of 30.
“There’s more to be done,” Baker said. “We feel like we can win out and that’s our plan.”
Even if they don’t win out, Rutgers moves back into the center of the NCAA Tournament picture and likely needs one more win to clinch a bid. Most projections list this team as a 7 seed as of now.
As for his potential last game at the RAC, Baker’s mother was not in attendance for senior night, but that was by design.
“I told her she has to wait for the (NCAA) Tournament,” Baker said prior to senior night. “She has to see me in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Baker has emerged as a historic figure in Rutgers basketball, regardless of what happens the rest of this season. Of course, his legacy will only grow if this team can go dancing and even do some damage once they get there. If they do, it will be in large part due to Baker’s leadership and performance.
He was asked earlier this week how he wants to be remembered for his Rutgers career. His answer says it all.
“What I want my legacy to be is a winner,” Baker said. “That’s what I want to be known for. At the end of the day, winning is the most important thing.”
Mission accomplished, even though Rutgers fans hope that Baker’s days in uniform extend past this season.
Not all heroes wear capes. This one wears number 0.