It was ugly. It was gut wrenching. It was Rutgers basketball.
In the end, this team will be ultimately remembered for what they accomplished together.
Rutgers wouldn’t have won its first NCAA Tournament game in 38 years on Friday night if the players didn’t do what had got them there after an incredibly long and obstacle filled journey.
They defended. They rebounded. They played together and for each other when it mattered most. They beat Clemson 60-56 and advanced in March.
While the game tape might not be hung in the museum of modern art, the memories of this victory will live at the top of a virtual trophy case in the hearts and minds of every Rutgers fan forever.
“They stuck together even when things weren’t going our way. They’re a good group,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “They’re resilient. We’ve been through a lot. It’s been a two-year journey, too. I like the toughness. We toughed out a win, old fashion, keep them to 56 points is a really good sign. We figured out a way to win. Our defense and rebounding stepped up, and they we made some really big and timely baskets. Four guys in double figures. It was a good thing we moved the ball in the second half, got guys some open looks. Again, excited. You survive and advance in these situations.”
Four players scored in double digits, while there were major contributions from six players in the game. Team basketball wins in March and that’s what Rutgers played on Friday night.
Geo Baker hit a three-pointer for the first made shot of the night for either team and then scored the final five points of the game for Rutgers. He finished with 13 points, 3 assists and a steal. The last bucket of the game that sealed the victory came off a deflection from a pass Baker had made, only for him to recover it and lay it in. His career has never been about the statistics but about coming through in big moments. It should be no surprise that he did it again in the biggest win for Rutgers in 38 years. He has said that he wants to be remembered as a winner. Mission accomplished and then some.
“I mean, he’s done it a lot throughout his whole career,” said Pikiell. “Even his freshman year on, he’s made big plays for us, big baskets. He’s very confident. We’re confident in him, too. I think the players are confident. But he can also make the right pass, too. When you have the ball in his hands, good things can happen. He certainly never shies away from taking a big one. Thankful to have a guy like that. He’s made a lot of them for us.”
“Our mentality is you never give up on the play,” Baker explained. “I’m happy that I made the play. That made it March. All of these game are going to be like that. It was everything I hoped for. Our guys are really excited. This is something we’ve all imagined for a long time and it was crazier than I’d even pictured. Just to hear all the Rutgers fans in there cheering, we survived and advanced. It was an amazing feeling.”
Ron Harper Jr. struggled shooting just 3 of 14 from the floor, missing his last 8 shots on the night. However, he finished with a serviceable 10 points and 5 rebounds, was 4 of 5 from the foul line and made a huge defensive stop with Rutgers leading by just 2 points in the final minute. With Myles Johnson hobbling off the court, Harper Jr. picked up Clemson’s Aamir Simms, the best player in this game, and kept him in front of him, closing off the lane, leading to the Tigers star getting called for a traveling violation. It was a huge moment in this victory and was a great coaching call by Pikiell to go small on that possession.
“We had adversity all year long, so I was glad they responded,” said Pikiell. “Myles has been in foul trouble, too. We’ve been in that situation before. Ron can guard multiple players. We were confident that he did. I just wanted to have another ball handler in the game, too, with Paul. Was able to make those adjustments. Those guys are big enough and strong enough to guard forwards if they have to. Thought Ron did a pretty good job. The guy stayed the course, got a couple big stops down the stretch.”
Speaking of Johnson, he only had 2 points on 3 shots, but he finished with 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, including a big one on Simms with under four minutes to play, 3 steals and an all important 30 minutes played. When Johnson plays 30 plus minutes, Rutgers is 6-1 this season. His defense of Simms, who still finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, was a big reason Rutgers won this game. He is a warrior.
On Johnson’s health status, Pikiell said after the game, “He’s with Rich (Campbell, head trainer) right now. I don’t have any updates on him. Yeah, he came out of the game. Couldn’t finish the game. We’ll figure that out and hopefully he’ll be okay.”
Jacob Young’s swagger and confidence doesn’t show up in the box score, but it was a big factor in this win. When Pikiell wisely subbed him in at the end of the first half looking for a spark, Young immediately made a steal and scored in transition. He energized Rutgers in the second half and his three-pointer with just over 13 minutes left in the game gave RU the lead they never relinquished. While he committed 3 turnovers in the first half, he had none in the second, was 5 of 7 shooting for the night for 13 points and had 3 assists in addition to playing lockdown defense. Al-Amir Dawes and Nick Honor are Clemson’s second and third leading scorers, but had just 8 points and 2 points in the game. Young was a big reason why.
“Yeah, he’s tough. He likes these kind of games, too, first and foremost,” Pikiell stated. “I love the job he did in the second half. He settled down, didn’t have any turnovers. He’s really good defensively. He brings a swagger to our team, too. He’s an elite defensive guard. He’s one of the fastest guys in the country. His experience, his work ethic, he’s in the gym all the time. And it paid off. He shot the ball really well tonight. Making three threes was really huge for us. But he’s continuing to have a really good senior year.”
“This was a main reason I came to Rutgers, to help make the tournament, and now we’ve accomplished that,” said Young. “We have everything going around here. I’m just living in the moment now and looking forward to Sunday.”
Caleb McConnell was huge in this game and delivered just like I expected him to do. He came through with his first double-double of the season with 13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and 1 steal. He had scored just 13 points total in the previous six games. His defense, toughness, team first attitude and ability to make winning plays makes him the ultimate glue guy for Rutgers. His sticky fingerprints are all over this victory.
“I mean, huge. He came in, he had great energy right off the bat. I mean, to get 13 points and 10 rebounds, three assists, too, a steal. I mean, very involved. He’s a really good defender, too. Those are his offensive numbers. I know when I go through the tape, the defense that he played, too, you’ll really see some more things. Really excited about his minutes. To have a double-double on this stage, I know he played great defense, because you can count on him for that every night. Tip of the hat to Caleb.”
“It was really just my will to win,” said McConnell. “My will to get stops on the defensive end. That just led me to rebound, getting stops and getting steals. It was just my will, wanting it a little more tonight.”
Paul Mulcahy struggled defensively, but his two made three-pointers early in the second half kept Rutgers within one possession and allowed them to get comfortable in a way that led them to rattle off a game changing 16-2 run. He finished with 8 points also led the team with 4 assists.
“I really liked our poise down the stretch,” Pikiell said. “Everybody that checked into the game did some unbelievable things. I’m excited for Rutgers Nation and I’m excited to get to live another 40 minutes.”
Rutgers advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament to play no. 2 seed Houston on Sunday, March 21 at 7:10 p.m. ET at Lucas Oil Stadium and will air on TBS.
When and where the matchup takes place is not important. If this team plays as hard and as together as they did in the win over Clemson, the Scarlet Knights will have a chance to earn the program’s first Sweet 16 berth since 1979. Rutgers will have to play its best game of the season to do it, but counting out this group of players would be a mistake. They’ve sacrificed this past year like no other team in program history, but they’ve also done more than any team has in almost four decades. Now they have a chance to do more.
“We were all excited,” said McConnell. “It was a big game, a hard-fought game. We were very excited, but now we have to worry about the next game. We just have to come into that game focused, follow the game plan. Play together and play Rutgers basketball.”
For the first time in a very long time, playing Rutgers basketball means winning NCAA Tournament games. We are on to the round of 32.