With Rutgers trailing No. 16 Ohio State 64-56 with 3:47 to play, time was running out. Not only in missing a chance for another crucial Quad 1 win but the air was also being let out on the possibility of this team making a special run down the home stretch of the season. While a loss wouldn’t have ended the dream of returning to the NCAA Tournament, it would have once again put Rutgers on the brink of elimination outside of a Cinderella run in the Big Ten Tournament.
And then like so many times before, Geo Baker rose to the occasion and saved the day yet again.
Here is how the final three plus minutes finished:
Two made free throws by Geo Baker at 3:07 mark. 64-58 OSU.
Driving layup by Geo Baker at 2:33 mark. 64-60 OSU.
Stepback jumper by Geo Baker at 2:03 mark. 64-62 OSU.
Made dunk by Cliff Omoruyi, assisted by Geo Baker at 1:13 mark. 64-64.
Two made free throws by Geo Baker at 0:18 mark. 66-64 RU.
Block by Geo Baker at 0:01 mark. Time expires. Rutgers WINS 66-64.
Rutgers had five blocks in the final two plus minutes of the game to spur the defensive stand that held the Buckeyes scoreless in the final 3:48 of the game. Cliff Omoruyi had the first two, Caleb McConnell delivered a masterful block covered in full here, followed by Ron Harper Jr. swatting away a shot with 3 seconds to play. But of course, it was Geo with the close out on Justin Ahrens three-point shot with 1 second left after fighting through a screen that sealed the victory. He was able to get his fingertips on the ball as it was released and the shot attempt never got close to the rim.
An epic comeback was led by an epic performance from Baker, who seized the moment and inspired the RAC faithful to raise the decibel level to a deafening state. AGAIN.
He scored a game high 25 points on 9 of 14 shooting, including 3 of 7 from three-point range and 4 of 4 from the foul line. In addition, he had 6 assists along with 0 turnovers, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks in 38 minutes.
“That was an old-fashioned Geo night,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after the win. “25 points, and down the stretch he was confident. The fact that he had zero turnovers is a huge stat. We had to guard people today too. And when we had to we were able to get it done. Geo has it going too, he can stop and guard people.”
Just eight days after being held scoreless and throwing away a pass in the closing seconds in a 1 point overtime loss to Northwestern, Baker ascended to new heights and in doing so, breathed new life into Rutgers’ postseason chances.
At 14-9 overall and 8-5 in Big Ten play, this team is still alive for a bid to March Madness. They moved up 8 spots in the NET rankings on Thursday morning to No. 91. Their KenPom efficiency ranking is now No. 84. There is plenty of work still to do, but the Scarlet Knights are unofficially on the NCAA Tournament bubble after not even being on the NIT bubble a week ago.
Beating back to back nationally ranked teams in No. 13 Michigan State and No. 16 Ohio State has changed everything for Rutgers. Suddenly, they have a 4-3 record against Quad 1 opponents and have six more games in a row against Q1 competition. It won’t be easy, but after the roller coaster ride this team has taken fans on this season, it makes zero sense to rule them out.
No player epitomizes this team’s journey than Geo Baker. He is not only the most important Rutgers men’s basketball player of this century and really the past four decades, but he is the most polarizing as well.
Baker is shooting 38.6% overall for his career and 32.7% from three-point range. The most efficient shooter he is not and frustration with that part of his game at times is completely fair. However, statistically he is carving out a pretty historic mark on the record books. He passed the great Roy Hinson in Wednesday’s game for 11th all-time in scoring with 1,534 points. He is third all-time in assists with 467, 5th with 223 made three-pointers, 7th with 168 steals and 11th in made field goals with 554.
Again, he isn’t the best player, but he is the most important.
That being said, Baker’s greatest impact is how he has been the leader of change within the program since his arrival as the 414th ranked recruit in the 2017 class. He has been the face of the rebuild under Pikiell and has delivered many big shots and clutch moments in his career.
His 25 point performance against No. 8 Purdue in the Big Ten Quarterfinals as a freshman. His emergence as the go to scorer in his sophomore season. His heroic performances in wins over Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue on the road to clinch a 20 win season his junior year. His senior night performance against Indiana and his clinching basket for Rutgers’ first NCAA Tournament win in 38 years. All of those moments built a significant resume before this season even started as he returned for an extra year of eligibility due to Covid.
This season, Baker is currently leading the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio while producing the best defensive efficiency rating of his career. Wednesday night was the third game Geo has scored at least 25 points this season.
None of it has been enough to deter his few but vocal detractors, mostly online through message boards and social media. No player has been scrutinized more or blamed more so than Baker in modern times for Rutgers men’s basketball. As captain and the leader of the program, that comes with the territory but some of the criticism has run deeper.
The disdain for Baker grew apart from his play in the last year as he became more vocal on social issues. He was at the forefront for change that resulted in name, image and likeness rights becoming a reality for student-athletes since July 2021. He made controversial statements last season about comparing the plight of student-athletes with slavery, something he clarified soon after for in his use of the term but not for the point he was trying to convey. He has been outspoken on issues involving George Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement and along with Ron Harper Jr. is a part of the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition.
Not all Rutgers fans have supported Baker for his work off the court. The old and tired “stick to sports” and “just be grateful for your scholarship” attitudes rise to the surface with every bad game he has. Geo must be too focused on earning money through his NIL, they say. It’s ridiculous.
It’s a shame and honestly, embarrassing, that some fans are failing to appreciate what a monumentally important player Baker is not only in program history, but for Rutgers athletics as a whole.
He isn’t close to the best player Rutgers has had, far from it. But he has become the most notable student-athlete that the school has had in many years.
Geo Baker’s greatness has never been in the stats, but has been in the moments. His leadership and ability to excel when it’s needed most is the defining characteristic of his Rutgers career. His representation as a role model is something not every college star athlete is equipped to handle. Baker has handled all of the adversity he has faced as smoothly as his patented stepback jumper that he’s made so many times over the years. He’s worked hard for progress on and off the court and achieved positive change with both.
“We have to stay solid. We can’t be overconfident, we can’t doubt ourselves,” Baker said following the comeback victory over Nebraska last month. He added, “You have to have a short memory. Basketball is an imperfect game. I’m an imperfect player. I know that, but these guys and the coaches trust me to try and make a play at the end of the game.”
Geo Baker knows who he is and he doesn’t make excuses or is apologetic. Nor should he be. Not many people believed in him upon his arrival to Rutgers. Steve Pikiell did though and because of that, the story of Rutgers men’s basketball has changed forever. The history books have been rewritten. The perception both nationally and within the Big Ten of Rutgers has changed from perennial laughingstock to a winning program that no one wants to play at home.
On Wednesday night, like so many times before, with the game on the line and Rutgers short on hope, Geo Baker delivered once again. With the season very much still alive, there are real reasons to believe that this team can achieve much more.
If they do, it most certainly won’t be the last time Baker comes through in the clutch. Love him or hate him, Geo Baker is the seminal figure of Rutgers men’s basketball in the 21st century. With only a few weeks left in his career on the banks, remember to appreciate Baker, even the missed shots and turnovers. As he’s proven throughout his time at Rutgers, mistakes and failures are usually followed by his greatest moments. If only that was true of everyone in real life. No matter what happens in the final month of the season, Baker’s legacy is secure as culture changer, program builder and ultimately, a winner.