In a game that had 22 lead changes, Rutgers was able to close it out the way this team has so many times before. Big shots and big stops were the reason why, but the fight and perseverance of this team was the cause. Minnesota led 70-66 with 2:22 to play but the Scarlet Knights never wavered and won the game behind a 10-2 run.
“We kept grinding. We kept fighting through it,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “I was real proud. They never flinched. At every timeout, at every huddle, they were together (saying) ‘we got this, we got this’.”
Geo Baker closed out the game in vintage fashion, scoring 8 points in the final 3:51, including his iconic step back jumper to give Rutgers the lead for good with a minute to play. He finished with a team high 16 points on 5 of 8 shooting, as well as 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. Baker was active on the defensive end and disrupted Minnesota in its halfcourt offense on multiple occasions.
“I have great teammates and great coaches who trust me in that situation,” said Baker. “Down the stretch, I was feeling good. Luckily, the ball was going in.” He added “It’s not taking pride in being clutch. It’s taking pride in being a winning player.”
After averaging just 7.8 points on 38.6% shooting during the five game losing streak, Baker has now scored in double digits in all four games of the current winning streak. It’s the program’s most consecutive wins in conference play since being a member of the Big East during the 2003-2004 season. Baker is a major reason why and since he was switched to being a primary ball handler, he is averaging 14.5 points on 52.5% shooting. His impact on the offense isn’t just made shots, as he is facilitating more ball movement and its leading to better shot selection as a team. Rutgers shot 53.0% from the floor and made 8 of its last 9 shots in the game.
Pikiell said of his captain, “He was confident too. Made big free-throws and he got the big rebound to kind of ice it there at the end. He had a little foul trouble he had to play through today, some obstacles, but he made some big plays. Thankful for that down the stretch especially and made some tough ones. He (also) got a few looks for other people. So, I’m real pleased. Geo does a great job, and I couldn’t take him out of the game other than the foul trouble today because he was locked in.”
Rutgers also got a huge night from Caleb McConnell, who along with Paul Mulcahy played 18 minutes in the second half, including the final 12 of the game. McConnell finished with a season high 14 points on 5 of 11 shooting, as well as a season high 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. It was his defense that stood out in the final minutes, as he helped to contain Minnesota’s Marcus Carr and keep him out of the lane on the final two possessions, forcing the talented guard to take contested jump shots that didn’t go in. He also made a huge three-pointer to put Rutgers in the lead with under two minutes left in the game.
Baker was asked about the impact of McConnell’s play and the captain said “Just a winner. Doing all the little things. I told him at the end of the game, he missed a couple of bunnies, but he didn’t let that get to him. The only thing he was thinking about was winning the game. The only thing he was thinking about was stopping Marcus Carr. That’s what a winning program looks like. Things aren’t going your way, but you still find a way. And it ended up going his way at the end of the game. Fighting adversity, staying with it and finding a way to win. I think Caleb embodies all that.”
After a quiet first half, McConnell shined in the second half and he credited others by saying “It’s confidence and trust. I felt like my teammates just picked me up. They gave me confidence to keep shooting the ball and keep making plays. That’s what I do. They had a big part in that.”
Another big factor in the win was Myles Johnson inside, who is playing the best basketball of his Rutgers career. He produced his fifth double-double of the season and finished with 14 points on 7 of 8 shooting, as well as 12 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 2 assists. Johnson is averaging 10.5 points on 20 of 24 shooting for 83.3%, as well as 10.0 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.8 steals during the four game winning streak. His reliability as a rim defender allows the guards to be aggressive up top and its helped Rutgers force 53 turnovers in the past three games.
“You can’t talk enough about Myles and how well he has played,” said Pikiell.
On what has changed for Rutgers since the five game losing streak, Johnson was philosophical. “The program we were two weeks ago, we didn’t really know who we were. We weren’t playing to our strengths,” said Johnson. “Now after those two weeks, we’ve picked up on defense and (are) back to what we normally do. We know who we are now. Like Geo said, we have one agenda... to win the game. I think being straightforward and putting that first before anything else has gotten us to where we’ve put these games together. Even today, it was a tough game and you don’t know who is going to win until the very end. Just having that one mindset, playing defense and rebounding the way we normally do really put us over the edge.”
Aside from the fact that Rutgers is firmly in the top half of the Big Ten standings after Thursday’s win over Minnesota was that they won a program record fourth consecutive game since joining the league seven seasons ago. Asked if it mattered at all to the players, Baker made it clear it did.
“We were talking about it in practice. Every single game, every single day, we are trying to make a new piece of history. We did that today,” said Baker. “That’s all we ever really think about, making history. That’s what we all came here for. Now we are all veterans but we’ve been talking about it for a long time. This is what we expected and we’re doing it.”
To make history, you need contributions from everyone and Rutgers got that on Thursday. While Ron Harper Jr. didn’t have a big offensive night, he made three of four free throw attempts in the final minute to seal the victory. He finished with 9 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Paul Mulcahy played almost every minute of the second half and his steady presence has made a huge impact during the four game winning streak. He grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists in addition to scoring 5 points. While his versatility is key, it was his defense and willingness to do the dirty work that kept him on the floor in this game.
Jacob Young (9 points on 2 of 3 from three) and Montez Mathis (6 points) made an impact in the first half on both ends of the floor, but they were on the bench for all but 6 minutes of the second half. It speaks more to how Mulcahy and McConnell were performing in this game. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that since Pikiell inserted the two guards into the starting lineup, Rutgers has won four in a row. Their steady play and glue guy mentality has helped cultivate a winning team.
Asked about their impact on the game, Pikiell said, “Those guys do a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. They have great length. Terrific box out players. They’re cutters. They share the game. Caleb is obviously feeling better, he was really good tonight. He’s come off that injury, it takes a little time to get in your rhythm. They really defended down the stretch. I like those two guys. When you watch the film, you see more of the things that they do that they don’t get credit for. They made some winning plays tonight.”
One thing that makes Rutgers so enjoyable to watch when things are clicking is their blue collar mentality. It was a satisfying night for McConnell, who played his best game in over a year since he has battled through a back injury that severely limited him down the stretch last season. His mentality and that of his teammates is what makes Rutgers such a tough team to play.
“That’s college basketball,” said McConnell. “Some kids come into a program expecting all the bigger things and expecting things to go their way. I feel like you have to keep fighting. That’s one thing I tell the younger guys on this team is you have to fight for everything. That’s one thing Pike also preaches. Things might not go your way but you have to keep fighting. You have to fight for opportunity and when it comes you have to execute. It’s really just having a winners mentality. Just be a fighter and I feel like that’s what I am.”
After a five game losing streak that put Rutgers in a 3-6 hole and on the brink of disastrous season, this team kept fighting. Four wins later they have a clear path towards the NCAA Tournament, something the program hasn’t achieved in 30 years.