Rutgers men’s basketball (15-9; 9-5) delivered their most impressive team performance of the season on Saturday as every starter made major contributions in the stunning upset of No. 14 Wisconsin (19-5; 10-4) on the road. It was just the third ranked win on the road for the program in the last 20 years.
After trailing by double digits in the first half of all six Big Ten away contests and 8.5 point underdogs entering Saturday’s matchup in Madison, the Scarlet Knights were locked in as soon as the ball was tipped to start the game. RU led by as many as 9 points in the opening frame before the back and forth affair extended into the final stretch of the game. With the Badgers leading 60-59 with 4:49 to play, Rutgers closed out the game on a 14-5 run to beat a ranked team for the third straight game for the first time in program history. It was also an all important third consecutive win over a Quad 1 opponent, breathing life back into the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
“This is as great of a place to come and play basketball in the Big Ten,” Pikiell said. “We haven’t had much success here. I’m just real proud of the guys. Ron (Harper Jr.) stretches out the floor, Paul (Mulcahy) makes the big layup and Caleb (McConnell) gets six steals. McConnell holds arguable the best-scorer in the country to 11 points. Cliff (Omoruyi) made huge rebounds and free throws and Geo (Baker) does what Geo does. Every guy came up big to win and every point was huge in this 40-minute league. Jalen Miller gave us great minutes defensively and Dean Reiber comes in and gets us a basket. I am real pleased to come out of here with a win.”
Before Rutgers was able to deliver the final run that knocked out Wisconsin on their own floor and stunning the home crowd in the process, they were mired in a four-plus minute scoring drought. After a difficult turnaround jumper from Caleb McConnell gave RU a 57-56 lead with 9:41 to play, it was the defense that kept the Scarlet Knights within 1 point as the Badgers could only muster one basket of their own during that stretch. And then to no one’s surprise, especially his teammates, Paul Mulcahy stepped up once again.
He made an extremely challenging contested stepback jumper to regain the lead with just over five minutes remaining. After Wisconsin immediately answered, it was Mulcahy who knocked down a huge three-pointer after Geo Baker found him open on the perimeter in transition. Cliff Omoruyi had big moments as well, as he made two crucial free throws to extend the lead to four points before Mulcahy had a steal and found him for a monster dunk that almost deflated the roof of the Kohl Center. A late scramble resulted in Mulcahy ending up with it for a layup that pushed the lead to double digits with only 34 seconds to play. He finished with 18 points on 6 of 9 shooting including 2 of 2 from three and 4 of 4 from the line, as well as 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 1 steal.
“Paul has been playing great,” Ron Harper Jr. said. “He got robbed of Big Ten Player of the Week and I will take that to the grave. Ever since that Northwestern game he has been playing with ultimate confidence and I always knew he had it in him all along. He had that one really good game and he’s carried that momentum. Every time he steps on the court, his confidence growing. I can see it in practice. I can see it in the weight room. Everything is going for Paul right now, so we have to just keep him positive and keep him going. As a team, we love to see him evolve as a player, especially late in the season when we need it.”
A key decision in the game came after Harper Jr. picked up two fouls at the 17:16 mark of the first half. After checking out and sitting on the bench for over six minutes, Pikiell gambled by bringing Harper Jr. back into the game. Rutgers led 17-15 but Wisconsin was starting to take control. Instead, the Scarlet Knights surged to a 29-20 lead after Harper Jr. hit a stepback jumper. He scored 8 points over ten minutes before being subbed out in the last minute of the half. The Badgers did tie the game before Rutgers went into halftime with a 3 point lead, but putting Harper Jr. back in despite foul trouble sent a message.
Rutgers was playing to win and Pikiell’s risk was received well by his team after they finally came out strong on the road. He rarely gambles like that but it speaks to the urgency they had to win this game. The team was locked in and Pikiell was aggressive. The decision was the catalyst for Harper Jr. to lead all scorers with 21 points in the game along with 6 rebounds, 2 assists and a block.
“I feel like I picked up those two fouls early trying to play aggressive and get myself into the game,” said Harper Jr. “I felt coach Pikiell knew that and he felt comfortable putting me out there with two fouls. I knew I had to play a little less aggressive in order not to pick up my third. I played smart out there but was still playing hard and aggressive, but just had to tone it down a little bit and not put myself in the position to get more fouls.”
Geo Baker’s resiliency and leadership was key in Rutgers finally playing well in the first half of a Big Ten road game. He scored all of his 16 points in the opening frame, making 5 of 7 shots including 2 of 3 from three and 4 of 4 from the foul line. He set the tone that RU came to play and gave the rest of the team confidence that they could win at Wisconsin for the first time in program history. His closing performance against Ohio State added to his legend and his opening on Saturday helped Rutgers make even more history.
“In this league every game is tight and close,” Pikiell said. “We learn a lot from those games we lose too. No one wants to hear that, but that’s the journey. Very few games in this league are decided by more than a couple of possessions.”
Pikiell called a timeout with 3:12 left in the game after Rutgers gained possession from a defensive rebound by Cliff Omoruyi and they were clinging to a 62-60 lead. It helped keep the team focused on the close and RU scored 8 straight points in the next two plus minutes of the game. It wasn’t a usual juncture of the game to call a timeout, coming right after the final media timeout, but it was another button that Pikiell pushed correctly on Saturday.
Another major contributor in the victory was Caleb McConnell. After the block from nowhere to save the day in Wednesday’s win over No. 16 Ohio State, he followed it up with a defensive masterpiece in Saturday’s win over No. 14 Wisconsin. McConnell guarded Badgers star Johnny Davis for most of the game and held the third leading scorer in the Big Ten to just 11 points, 10 below his season average. He also had 6 steals, including 4 in the second half and was disruptive all over the floor. Davis threw the ball out of bounds late in the game on the account of McConnell’s defense. His ability to shut down the other team’s best player and also his willingness to dive on the floor for 50/50 balls gives Rutgers an edge defensively.
“I’ve been saying he’s going to go win Defensive Player of the Year and he’s had 14 steals in three games against terrific teams,” Pikiell said. “Tonight he had a real task and he wanted it. Johnny Davis is an elite scorer who had 37 points at Purdue. Caleb’s a good player and you see how important he is. He does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score, but the fact that he always wants the best player on the other team is special.”
“Caleb is a dog,” Mulcahy said. “I was just saying in the locker room that I thought there was a play where he had like three steals on the same possession. No one works harder than him in our program. He is six-foot-seven and guards the best player every single night and he doesn’t complain he just competes. He doesn’t get a lot of pub, but he just competes. I firmly believe he is the Defensive Player of the Year.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, it’s great to play with the Defensive Player of the Year,” Harper Jr. said. “I feel like he’s so undervalued and we love playing with him out there.”
The fifth starter, Cliff Omoruyi, also had a good game with 10 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks. His ability to stay out of foul trouble and play 30+ minutes a game has been a major development for this team this season.
Other areas that helped Rutgers win the game was holding Wisconsin to just 21% from three-point range (4 of 19) and making 16 of 18 free throws for 89%. They also held a 10-2 advantage in fast break points. The Scarlet Knights won in a hostile road environment against a team tied for first place in the Big Ten standings. They outclassed the Badgers down the stretch and seemed to break their will on their home floor. Now RU will have a chance for a series sweep in Piscataway against the Badgers in two weeks.
The win over No. 1 Purdue was a glorious victory, but this game was a master class performance in how to play winning team basketball.
“I told you guys I like this group,” Pikiell said. “We practice the right way. They defend and they did that in the first half. We did a really good job of not fouling in the second half. We got Illinois next. This whole league is great, whether you are ranked or not ranked it doesn’t matter.”
Pikiell has received a lot of criticism most of the season after declaring this team was his best ever at Rutgers, including by yours truly. He deserved it for the way they played early on, but they just produced the best three game stretch since the program joined the Big Ten. They’ve now beaten four ranked Big Ten teams in a season for the first time since joining the league eight years ago. And after being written off multiple times this season since the three-game non-conference losing streak in November, RU is gaining real traction to earn a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament in March.
“We are real resilient,” Harper Jr. said. “We knew that today wasn’t going to be an easy game. I feel like we fought the adversity well and executed the game plan. We are playing teams in the top half of the Big Ten right now and we like it that way. We know what kind of team we are and we are just going to keep fighting.”
Rutgers has more work to do with six regular season games remaining with three of the next four against the top three teams in the Big Ten standings. Next up is first place Illinois at Jersey Mike’s Arena on Wednesday. A win would put the Scarlet Knights one game out of the top of the league. It’s hard to imagine with how the season began, but the turnaround is due to this team evolving and getting contributions from so many players game to game. Saturday’s win over Wisconsin was exhibit A and gives fans real hope that this team has plenty of memorable moments still to come.