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Jacob Young steals the show in program defining victory

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With the game and the season on the line, he came through in a big way.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Minnesota David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

As the years go by and the Rutgers men’s basketball’s 2020-2021 season is remembered, the victory over Minnesota will still be in the front of our minds. It won’t be because of how well they played but because of the importance of the win itself. Finding themselves in the exact same situation as a year ago when they had to win on the road at Purdue in order to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, Rutgers did it again at Minnesota on Saturday. Just like a year ago, they needed overtime to do it. And in both games, Jacob Young rose to the occasion when it mattered most.

Last season, Young produced an iconic moment when he dunked over 7’3” Matt Haarms of Purdue and drew the foul to convert a crucial three-point play in overtime that was ultimately won on a Geo Baker step back jumper in the closing seconds.

This season, Young produced many moments in the regular season finale that resulted in an iconic performance for the ages in the win over Minnesota.

Looking at his stat line paints a picture of how good he was on Saturday, but it doesn’t highlight all the details. Young finished with a game high 23 points on 8 of 13 shooting, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals in 38 glorious minutes.

Before we get to how he took over the game in overtime, let’s talk about his defense. Despite Montez Mathis and Caleb McConnell having prior success in defending Minnesota’s All-Big Ten point guard Marcus Carr, it was Young who drew the majority of the minutes defending him on Saturday. Carr came into the game averaging 20.1 points, 5.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals and had just scored a combined 84 points in his previous three games. However, Young completely shut Carr down on Saturday as the 6’2” redshirt junior had just 7 points on 1 of 13 shooting from the floor, including 1 of 8 from three-point range. While he grabbed 7 rebounds, he only dished out 2 assists and committed 3 turnovers. He looked out of sorts and off balance the entire game. It was mostly because of the defense of Jacob Young.

Credit Minnesota for coming back against Rutgers and for Carr for trying to lift the injury riddled Gophers with his only made shot of the game to send it into overtime. However, it was Young who was the ultimate difference maker on Saturday.

In fact, the game never even would have made it to an extra session if it weren’t for Young’s heroics on the defensive end. With the game tied and less than 20 seconds to play, Minnesota’s Eric Curry gathered a turnover by Geo Baker and the below fast break was set up on a Golden Gopher platter for the home team.

The only player wearing a Rutgers uniform outside of the paint is Young, who miraculously intercepted Curry’s pass around midcourt that should go down as the biggest play of the season. If the ball gets by Young, Minnesota would have scored easily and most likely would have won with the way momentum had shifted so dramatically after Rutgers blew a 14 point lead.

“I just knew there was no way I could let that pass get behind me,” Young said. “I knew I had to get back or I had to steal it. That’s the extra effort we always talk about.”

As amazing as that play was, Young made sure it would ultimately mean something by taking over the game in overtime. With the ball in his hands on the first three possessions of the extra session, he made the following plays:

Made a pull-up jumper; blocked a Carr three-point attempt; assisted on a made basket by Myles Johnson; grabbed a defensive rebound; assisted on a Caleb McConnell dunk.

A truly sensational stretch of basketball by one player and it came with both the game and the season on the line.

Soon after with Rutgers clinging to a 71-68 lead and under a minute remaining in overtime, Young drove to the hoop and made a layup in traffic, drew the foul and converted from the line to extend the lead to six points with 40 seconds to play. An NCAA Tournament ticket was punched in the process.

“He’s a winner. He’s a competitor,” said Geo Baker about his backcourt mate. “We didn’t flinch and JY made plays down that stretch. He was great for us.”

Coming into Saturday, Rutgers was 2-6 in Big Ten games this season when Young led them in scoring. Both wins came against 13th place Northwestern. I’ve always felt that Young is at his best when he is a primary distributor and a secondary scorer. Rutgers had no chance of winning against Minnesota if Young hadn’t taken over, but there was still a major difference in how he played compared to other games when he has led the team in scoring.

Young may have ended up taking the most shots for Rutgers, but it was his focus and intention on getting his teammates involved that showed through. He started the game looking to create offense for his teammates and it carried on throughout the day. He took just 4 shots but had 4 assists in the first half, including a great pass to Montez Mathis in transition for a dunk to send RU to the locker room leading by 9 points.

Even in the second half when Young took several shots in the paint, he did it in a controlled and deliberate way after he determined it was the best option. There have been games this season when Young goes full speed ahead and has little intent of passing the ball. It often led to turnovers. However, in the Indiana game last week and against Minnesota on Saturday, Young showed how valuable he can be when he is working hard to create the best scoring opportunities, whether that means his own shot or good looks for his teammates.

Rutgers has scored over 70 points just twice in the past six games, which was against the opponents just mentioned in the Hoosiers and Gophers. Young dished out 7 assists in both games. While he can be a high volume scorer, his performance in overtime showed his maturity in getting two assists on the first three possessions. He was no doubt feeling it at that point, but he stayed within himself and played team basketball. When Young is scoring and distributing at the same time, it’s clear Rutgers is at its best on the offensive end.

In regard to his lightning quick first step and ability to drive the lane, I feel comfortable in saying Rutgers hasn’t had a player as good as Young off the bounce and as a penetrator in a very, very long time. He is the best that I can remember in my lifetime as a fan, which began in the mid-80’s. I’ll defer to fans who’ve followed Rutgers longer, but I’d reckon not since the days of Brian Ellerbe and Eddie Jordan has Rutgers had a player who can control the game off the dribble like Young.

Young’a evolution from a gunner who looked to score first to a combo guard that is making better decisions as each game passes is a work in progress but has been fun to watch. Yes, he still commits too many turnovers, he had 4 against Minnesota, but his ability to drive and dish, get within ten feet of the rim for floaters, as well as his ability to get the ball up the court in no time on the break make him a special player for Rutgers. His defensive play and ability to shut down the opponents best player has been so important as well.

“Everything’s not going to be perfect. We know that,” Young said. “We didn’t feel like we had a weight on our shoulders. We just felt like we had to come out here and play. We’re confident in each other that we can win basketball games.”

It was Young’s confidence that nudged Rutgers forward on Saturday. If I told you before the game that it went into overtime and both Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. were held scoreless, would you think Rutgers had won? Young picked up the entire team when it needed it most and his belief in himself hasn’t ever seemed to waver. His smile and swagger were always present on the court this season, even in difficult times. His resiliency was another big reason Rutgers has persevered this season through so much adversity.

If Rutgers wants to make a memorable March postseason run, Young will be a key reason why. With the game and season on the line, Steve Pikiell put the ball in his hands. After Saturday’s performance, his importance in the program making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years is etched in stone forever.