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Rutgers’ seniors go down swinging like always

The season ended with a stomach punch loss once again, but the legacies of its three seniors will shine forever.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - First Four Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

When the clock struck midnight in the First Four game between Rutgers and Notre Dame in Dayton, Ohio, it was the first true instance of March Madness in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. With the Scarlet Knights trailing by 3 points and less than 30 seconds remaining in double overtime, Geo Baker found Ron Harper Jr with the shot clock winding down. From more than 25 feet out, Harper Jr. did what he’s done so many times in his career.....he made the shot to come through for his team. With the score tied and the last seconds ticking off the clock, Paul Atkinson Jr. knifed his way to the rim and scored the game winning basket off a missed shot by Blake Wesley. There was just over a second remaining and Baker’s desperation shot had no chance.

In the first few minutes of St. Patrick’s Day, Notre Dame advanced in what was an instant classic while the incredible journey of this Rutgers program led by its three seniors was over for good.

It was a true stomach punch loss as defined years ago by Bill Simmons. Here is the definition of it:

Level III: The Stomach Punch

Definition: Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. Always haunting, sometimes scarring. There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation.

Sounds about right. In a game that had 17 lead changes and 12 ties, that saw both teams make big shot after big shot, each with chances to win before the game ultimately ended with the Scarlet Knights falling just short.

For Rutgers and its players, program and fans, that was only part of it.

The loss marked the end of the most important senior class in almost half a century. In the most memorable season of three memorable careers, full of “what ifs” and “I can’t believe its”, as well as a blended mix of heartbreak and glory, the run of this group was over.

“A lot of pain right now,” said Baker. “We’ve been through some real battles, us three. Luke, everybody on the team, Ralph. It’s a lot of pain right now. And I don’t really know what to say.”

Ron Harper Jr. explained, “Caleb said it best in the locker room, just telling these guys to cherish this moment, cherish college basketball. Because it feels like we were just freshmen yesterday. We’ve got a special brotherhood now that’s never going to change, that’s never going to end. Just a lot of emotions right now. But playing in that game was really special. That’s what March is about. We just came up short.”

Both team shot 51% from the floor but the way both made shots was the opposite of what anyone expected coming into the game. Notre Dame entered as one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the country and the biggest key was to close them out on the arc. On the other side, Rutgers had the supposed edge inside and needed to attack the rim to control the game and exert their physicality on the more finesse oriented Irish.

And then the script was completely flipped.

Notre Dame repeatedly blew by Rutgers defenders unable to stop the endless penetration that resulted in 58 Irish points in the paint. The Scarlet Knights then made 11 of 27 shot attempts from three-point range for a highly efficient 40.7%. The Irish ended up only making 5 of 19 shots from behind the arc for 32% while RU failed to attack inside enough and scored just 30 points in the paint. Each team took on the personality of their opponent and it resulted in a thrilling matchup, so much so that it was suggested on the broadcast that the best NCAA Tournament game already happened.

Even so, there is no joy in Piscataway or Rutgers nation this morning.

“It was a great game. We came up a little bit short,” said Harper Jr. “The emotion at the end, it was heartbreaking to see it all unfold like that. The people up here next to me up here, we sacrificed a lot to get to where we are today. For it to come down for them like that, it’s just upsetting, it’s devastating, heartbreaking. It’s all the above.

McConnell added, “It’s very emotional. Obviously we’re very upset we came out on the wrong end of it. As you see we’re very emotional now. And it’s just sad that we had to end it this way. We built so much. Just take basketball and statistics out the window, just the stuff we did here, the brotherhood we built, the friendships we built with each other, it’s going to last forever. But it’s sad it had to end this way.”

He’s completely right of course.

What Baker, Harper Jr. and McConnell accomplished at Rutgers was never expected nor believed to be possible by many people. They each had just one other high major offer when they were recruited out of high school. Together, they changed a program, its culture, its history and its reputation.

“We were 14th when I first took over the job, said Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell. “Didn’t have any winning streaks. Didn’t have any postseason bids. Didn’t have any of that. They did an unbelievable job, finished fourth in the best league in the country. But I appreciate these guys, what they’ve given to our program and what they’ve given to our university. They’re just great students, great people. And you saw them fight tonight. And it’s not easy the whole season, back against the wall a lot of times. They just did nothing but respond. And today proud. We were two points short in double overtime to a good Notre Dame team. But these guys have laid it on the line for a long time. And they came to Rutgers when Rutgers wasn’t fashionable. And they built a culture that’s terrific.”

While fans begin to wonder what next season’s roster and beyond will look like, it’s only right to first fully appreciated how far this program has come because of these three seniors. It was never just about gaining credibility in college basketball, but making the state of New Jersey proud and ensure future in-state players believe they can succeed at Rutgers.

“Yeah, I wanted to kind of be the kid that started the trend — go to Rutgers, you can go to the NCAA Tournament,” said Harper Jr., the New Jersey native. “And I feel like I did good a job of that. But it never would have been possible without the guys to my left, my right, the guys in the locker room.”

Choking up with emotion, Harper Jr. continued in saying “Growing up, all I ever wanted was somebody to respect me, somebody to tell me I’m good enough. And I found it here at Rutgers. I found a group of guys that believed in me, that trusted me. That’s all I could ever ask for. These guys made me the player I am today. These guys made me an All-American. These guys got me all those individual accolades. It sucks it had to end like this. But I love these guys. Like Caleb said, It’s an unbreakable brotherhood.”

As for their ultimate legacy at Rutgers, Harper Jr. said, “We started something special up here. It’s like sitting next to the three pioneers; we did it three years in a row. I don’t care what anybody says — COVID happened, we would have been right there in the mix. We did that three years in a row. And not a lot of schools can say they did, especially not making this for 30 years. So, I’m proud of the culture that we’ve built. I’m proud of everything that we did. It sucks we came up short. But these last four years is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life and I’ll cherish and I’ll hold close to me.”

In addition to playing in back to back NCAA Tournaments for just the second time ever in program history and what should have been three in row if not for COVID, was their rise within their own conference. Only six Big Ten teams have won ten or more regular season league games in each of the past three years. They include Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Rutgers. The program had never won more than three Big Ten games in a season before the three seniors stepped on the RAC floor. Once they did, the seats in the unique arena eventually filled in a way that Rutgers formed one of the best homecourt advantages in all of college basketball.

Asked about his message to the fans, Harper Jr. said, “Thank you. None of this is ever possible without the fans. They made Jersey Mike’s Arena one of the hardest places in the country to play at. We’re just so grateful for them. Ever since I stepped on the campus they’ve been all aboard about Rutgers basketball. “I hope we made them proud. I know we came up short today, but we put our heart and soul on the line for this university, for that block R we rare proudly. We want to thank them for all the support, all the ups and downs. They kept showing up. So, we love the fans. And none of this is ever possible without them.

Pikiell added, “The Rutgers fan base has been awesome. If they can’t root for this team, this is as good a group of guys, a good team. And Rutgers fan base is awesome. I think they’re real proud of where this program has evolved to.”

In the end, it was defense that cost Rutgers this game and ended their season. That’s part of why the loss was harder than usual to take. It’s been the foundation of the rise of the program but they were unable to play at the level necessary to advance in the NCAA Tournament.

“We tried to take away 3s. I thought we did a decent job of that,” said Pikiell. “But they got into the paint. They finished some plays. But they want to shoot 3s is what they want to do. But it wasn’t our regular defense. We didn’t get any kills. That’s three stops in a row. We usually get a lot of them during the course of a game.”

Pikiell continued, “But we needed a big stop at the end. We didn’t get it. But we had some other big plays during the course of the game that could have changed the tide. But this is college basketball. This year it’s been like that for us all year long, two-point games, one-possession games. Proud of the way our team played. That’s a good team. They played well, too. I thought we played well. This may be the best game of the whole tournament. And it was played at high-level basketball game. It’s a high-level program, Notre Dame, and we’re a high-level program.”

While Wednesday night’s loss was definitely Geo Baker’s last game in a Rutgers uniform, it seems likely it was for Harper Jr. and McConnell as well. While both declined to discuss their future after such an emotional game, if it was their last, all three seniors left their best on the floor.

Caleb McConnell, playing in his hometown of Dayton, was sensational in scoring 18 first half points and finished with team high 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting at 83.3%. It was the best field goal percentage by a RU player in an NCAA Tournament game in program history. He led Rutgers in playing 48 out of 50 possible minutes, delivering a double-double for a second straight year in the NCAA Tournament. He added 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.

“It’s a very emotional game, coming home, being able to play in front of friends and family,” said McConnell. “I want to thank them for coming out. It wasn’t even about me tonight, honestly. It was just more about our team. Of course they wanted to win for us and for me.

Geo Baker took over the game down the stretch, making several big shots. His miss at the buzzer at the end of regulation was off the front rim.

“Yeah, thought I got a good look,” Baker said of the miss. “Made that shot a couple times in my career. Felt like it was going in. Came up a little short.”

He finished with 19 points on 7 of 19 shooting, including 3 of 8 from three-point range. He also had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and a blocked shot. Baker reached 496 assists for his career in the loss, passing Brian Ellerbe for second all-time in program history. He also finished 7th all-time in scoring, 4th all-time in made three-pointers and 10th all-time in steals.

Rutgers lost its first game of the season when Ron Harper Jr. scored over 20 points as he finished with 22 points on 9 of 14 shooting, including 4 of 7 from behind the arc. He added 4 rebounds, 4 assists and a block.

Even though this team went down earlier than anyone had hoped, all three seniors played well and left it all on the floor. All five starters played a career high in minutes.

“It really is indicative of their whole careers,” said Pikiell. “But those guys have, from day one, swung punches. Those guys just kept improving. They kept fighting for the program. Kept fighting for themselves. They come from great families. So real proud. Real proud and their best basketball is ahead of them. That’s what I’m most proud. They’ll continue to do great things in basketball. But it was sad. It was a sad locker room. And they put it all on the line. They fought the whole time. And that’s what this group has done for three years. They’ve fought. And I’m proud of them for that. I’ve been saying this all year. This is 30 years of coaching. I’ve never had a group like this. They’ve been — I mean, we didn’t have a bad day at practice the whole year. This group has been flat-out special. It’s by far my best team since I’ve been at Rutgers.”

All three seniors reflected on their impact on the program prior to senior day a couple of weeks ago and the biggest takeaway was their appreciation for the opportunities they have had at Rutgers. Things didn’t always go the way they wanted and missed chances to have even more success in their careers is a part of their legacy. However, that is the beauty of what they did accomplish. It was groundbreaking in some cases leading to program firsts that made you believe the sky was the limit. It didn’t work out that way, but all of the success they did have changed the perception of Rutgers basketball. It’s why the roller coaster ride of this season was so emotional for fans.

“Everything has to come to an end,” McConnell said capturing the gravity of the situation. “I’m just glad that I was able to do it with these guys, because these guys are amazing. Our whole team — transfers, whatever — just from top to bottom. We’re just a good group of kids. It’s bigger than basketball.”

In the end, Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell went down swinging. It’s not the ending anyone wanted but all three players made huge plays in the loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t enough, but they ultimately have done so much for Rutgers and this program. They deserve the ultimate respect. The changed the culture and the program. They believed in Pikiell’s vision and they made so much of it become true. Their impact and legacies will be held in high esteem forever.