The best part of Thursday’s 61-50 win in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament over Indiana was the way in which Rutgers won. It was a true team effort with several players making significant contributions in the victory.
Myles Johnson had 10 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks with his team leading 8th double-double of the season. Ron Harper Jr. had a big first half scoring wise and then did the dirty work on the glass in the second half, finishing with his own double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. Jacob Young was erratic with 4 turnovers, but he made some key handouts for 5 assists and tied Harper Jr. for a team high 13 points, which was his eighth straight game scoring in double figures. Geo Baker was in foul trouble but finished with 7 points and a team high 7 assists to just 1 turnover, as well as 2 steals. Caleb McConnell had 6 points and 4 rebounds, but he continues to wear down opponents with his defense in the stretch run of games.
It was a balanced performance by the veteran core of Rutgers on a night they held Indiana without a field goal the final nine-plus minutes of the game. They have now beaten the Hoosiers for the third time this season, fourth meeting in a row, and sixth of the last seven, including ending IU’s season twice in the past four years. However, it was a sophomore playing in his first postseason collegiate game that gave the Scarlet Knights the lift they needed to secure the victory.
Paul Mulcahy came through in the clutch on his way to his first double digit scoring performance since delivering 11 points on 3 of 5 from three-point range in big win over Purdue on December 29. The night didn’t begin well for Mulcahy, as he started 1 of 6 from the field, including 0 of 3 from three-point range. It wasn’t until under 11 minutes left in the game that he started to make a difference on the offensive end.
Myles Johnson made a steal and found Mulcahy, who went hard to the rim and made an athletic finish to put Rutgers in the lead 45-44 in a back and forth game at this point. Soon after, he attacked the rim again but had his shot blocked for a second time in the game. His confidence didn’t waver.
A little more than a minute later and the Scarlet Knights clinging to a 1 point lead, Mulcahy hung alone up top in the corner near the RU bench and knocked down a massive three-pointer with 7:10 left in the game. Indiana then missed four shots on its next two possessions, including one Mulcahy ended with a defensive rebound. Soon after, he got open in the same corner spot and drilled another three to put Rutgers out in front 55-48 with 5:32 remaining. With the way they were playing on defense against the Hoosiers, it felt like the knockout punch and it ultimately proved to be the case.
Soon after, Mulcahy went back to doing the little things that make him so valuable, getting a tip on a missed shot by Indiana to direct it to Johnson to end the possession and get the ball back. It was the type of play that doesn’t show up in the box score but has made the 6’6” guard so beloved by his teammates. He is constantly involved in plays trying to make a difference, even if it isn’t always pretty.
It’s been a rough month for Mulcahy. His willingness to put himself into the fray against any player or opponent has come with a certain price. He got his nose broken getting into the muck with Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza, who has five inches of height and about 50 pounds more on that Mulcahy. He also dislocated his pinky finger so badly that it was horizontal after the second win against Northwestern. In last week’s loss to Nebraska, Mulcahy left early with an undisclosed injury.
Despite it all, the kid from Bayonne kept fighting. He plays with a fearlessness but also an unselfishness that makes him a great team player that every winning team needs.
When asked after the game if his two three-pointers gave Rutgers the biggest lift of the night, he humbly answered “Honestly, defensive players give us bigger lifts, when we get kills, which is three stops in a row,” said Mulcahy.
It’s true the Scarlet Knights wore down the Hoosiers with great team defense, producing three kills down the stretch as Indiana failed to score on its final nine possessions in the final 9:50 of the game. There was some poor free throw shooting mixed in as Indiana was just 6 of 15 from the line while Rutgers was 7 of 9.
The truth is though that Mulcahy changed the game and hit the two biggest shots of the night. On coming through from behind the arc in a key spot, he said “I was happy it went in. My team had confidence in me the whole time. They all kept telling me to keep shooting. I missed my first three, so I was a little hesitant. But they kept believing in me.”
He finished the game with 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 0 turnovers.
While Mulcahy is only fifth on the team in three-pointers attempted and made this season, he came into the game shooting the highest percentage from behind the arc on the team. His shooting average actually went down after going 2 of 6 from deep in this game, but is at a solid 37.3% from behind the arc. Those two makes were huge and could end up being a turning point for Mulcahy’s confidence in regard to being more aggressive in taking big shots down the stretch moving forward.
College basketball in March is usually full of great stories and Mulcahy delivered in more ways than one on Thursday. His mother made a surprise trip to come watch her son play in the first postseason game of his career at Rutgers.
“I found out yesterday. I’m a big momma’s boy,” Mulcahy said. “I love my mom so much. She flew out to Chicago by herself. And then drove down (to Indianapolis). I was really happy that she was getting to experience this. I got to see her in the stands and it gave me a big smile.”
As for the key to Rutgers advancing to the Big Ten quarterfinals to face Illinois on Friday night, Mulcahy said “we stayed together and played for each other. As long as we do that, I really believe in us.”
As for the approach that Rutgers is taking in hopes of having further success this month in the state of Indiana, both in the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, Mulcahy said it was simple. “We are looking at this as a brand new season. Guys are reenergized. We are really excited to take it one game at a time. Just play.”
Mulcahy always plays hard and on Thursday he made shots when Rutgers needed them most.