Nothing is ever easy.
That’s the true mantra for Rutgers basketball from a fan perspective. History has proven that time and time again.
Needing one more win to clinch the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 30 years, the Scarlet Knights made ending that drought as hard as the human heart could possibly bear.
After an embarrassing blowout loss to last place Nebraska on Monday, it made Saturday’s game on the road against an injury depleted Minnesota team an absolute must win. With Rutgers in total control and leading by 14 points in the second half, the Gophers tied it in the final minute on Marcus Carr’s only field goal of the game with a three-pointer to send it to overtime.
Head coach Steve Pikiell recalled the moment, stating “I said in the huddle this is just like last year (at Purdue). We won that and we’re going to have to do it again.”
Spoiler alert....they did it again.
The defense stiffened and Jacob Young took over in the extra session as Rutgers pulled out a dramatic 77-70 overtime victory. There really could have been no more appropriate way for this team to seal its postseason fate than the way they did.
The Scarlet Knights finished the Big Ten regular season at 10-10 and according to every bracketology projection out there, they have now clinched the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in 30 years. However, making history is not the only way this team and core group of players should ultimately be defined and remembered.
This season has been as up and down as I can remember over the past three decades plus. This team at various times has played brilliantly, maddeningly, awfully, passionately and carelessly. This team has been both really good and really bad. They’ve played with great energy and also looked extremely flat and completely disinterested.
In essence, this Rutgers basketball team has played like we have all lived this past year during a global pandemic. I will take a leap of faith and make the statement that it’s likely nothing has come easy for any of us over the past year.
I hope every person reading this is in a good place right now personally, but I have to imagine we have all had challenges to overcome this past year unlike any other in our lifetimes. Experiencing loss in multiple areas of our lives. Struggling to get through any given day. Being tested mentally and emotionally in ways we never envisioned.
Now imagine being a 18 to 22 year old playing for a program whose history carries a weight of burden like no other college basketball team has had to do and having to deal with that weight while going through a global pandemic. This team has essentially been quarantining with one another since last June. This is a team that connected in a way with fans last season like no other Rutgers basketball team I can remember and then was forced to repeat a breakthrough year without them in almost total isolation.
It’s fair to be critical of how they played at times this season and I have been myself. However, it’s important to remember that none of us truly know the full extent of the adversity that this team has fought through. The mental toll this season has brought is unprecedented and has seemed to grow rapidly in watching this team play over the past few weeks.
This morning the team was notified that head trainer Rich Campbell would not be at the game after his father-in-law passed away. Jacob Young and Geo Baker talked after the game how the win was dedicated to him and his family. It was just another real life example of the adversity this team has fought through.
“We did it,” said Geo Baker, who finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. “It feels like a weight off my shoulders. The last couple of weeks we’ve tried to grind it out. A couple losses here and there. We knew we needed one more to lock it in. Getting it on the road feels similar to last year.”
Yes, last year seems like a decade ago. It’s amazing to realize that two years in a row with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, Rutgers won a Big Ten road game in overtime. No matter what happens the rest of the way, that’s what this core group of players should be remembered for. It was never easy, but they came through when it mattered most.
Jacob Young, who played the best game of his Rutgers career in the win by posting 23 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals, added “Not everything is going to be perfect. We know that and the coaches preach that to us. We knew we had to come out here and get this win. I know fans have waited a long time for this and now we’ve punched our ticket.”
In asking whether the history of this program has been a burden, head coach Steve Pikiell said “The players weren’t even born 30 years ago but they needed to be able to do this for Rutgers and for themselves.” He continued “This has been a two-year journey, Today is our 24th game we have not yet had a pause (COVID-19). Credit to our guys. This is a team you can really cheer for. Great kids, they do it right. Our fans have been a big part of that and I’m really happy they can enjoy this.”
I feel confident in speaking on behalf of the fan base that enjoy this we will. Today, tomorrow, forever.
Knowing how good a group of people this team is, how well they’ve done academically and how they’ve represented Rutgers so well over these past two years makes it even more enjoyable.
As for what’s next, Baker said “I think we will be able to play a lot looser now just knowing that we did it. We have a talented team and know we should be in the NCAA Tournament.”
This team has its flaws and this season has been a roller coaster. But at the end of the day, the way it all unfolded seems like the perfect way for Rutgers basketball to go dancing for the first time in three decades.
I really do think the weight of it all now being removed will allow this team to play more freely. It could be that its best basketball is still ahead of them. But even if that isn’t the case, what this team has accomplished has cemented its legacy forever. The way they did it was perfect in the most Rutgers way ever. Nothing is ever easy, but this team and group of players proved doing it the hard way is the most satisfying way to ultimately come through. At the end of the day, they did it!