What a win!
For a third straight year, Rutgers won its final road game of the season to boost its NCAA Tournament resume. Wednesday night’s victory over Indiana was a battle of two true bubble teams and the experience of Steve Pikiell’s team was the difference in the outcome. There were many big spots and moments in the game that Rutgers had to come through in to win and did. Many times. Let’s review.
The first big spot was right after the first media timeout of the game with Indiana leading 12-6. Race Thompson scored right after and all of a sudden the Hoosiers were on a 13-2 run and led by 8 points just over five minutes into the game. Rutgers was in danger of things getting out of hand quickly on senior night in front of 17,000 Indiana fans hoping to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Your leaders have to lead in those moments and that’s what happened next. On consecutive possessions, Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker each hit a three-pointer and just like that the lead was cut to 2 points. While IU was able to build back their lead later in the opening frame, responding in that situation early on kept the game from spiraling out of control and also set the tone that the two best players in Scarlet uniforms were ready for the challenge.
The next big moment came in the final seconds of the first half. Indiana went on an 11-3 run to push their lead to 10 points, the largest of the game. Jordan Geronimo scored in traffic as the shot clock expired and Assembly Hall was rocking. Rutgers had one more possession in the half with the clock winding down and Baker calmly took it down the court. He barely found any space on the wing and was defended, but still knocked down a massive three-pointer that sucked the energy out of the building. Instead of the Hoosiers heading to the locker room with all the momentum, Baker reminded them the Scarlet Knights weren’t going away.
A couple minutes plus into the second half, Baker made two free throws to pull RU within seven points again. It was the next two possessions that were key as Baker found Harper Jr. twice open behind the arc. Ron made both and it was a one point game.
Paul Mulcahy had a steal on the other end and he found Aundre Hyatt, who missed the layup and but was able to score on his next attempt to give Rutgers the 1 point lead. It capped a 10-0 run that proved yet again that this team was not backing down.
In the first half, Indiana big man Trayce Jackson-Davis scored 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting and grabbed 7 rebounds. He was dominating inside and the Hoosiers were +6 on the glass. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell made the key adjustment of the game by mixing in a zone defense on about a half dozen possessions. Not only did Jackson Davis only score 4 points on just 3 shots in the second half, Rutgers was +8 on the glass as well. They also outscored the Hoosiers 16-10 with points in the paint in the second half.
Even so, Indiana continued to battle in part to making 4 of 10 from three in the second half. They led 52-45 with nine minutes remaining in the game. Entering the night, Rutgers was 8-0 when holding opponents to 65 or less points. Conversely, Indiana was 0-6 when scoring 65 or less points in league action this season. At this stage, it looked like the Hoosiers, who averaged 72 points a game coming in, were likely to exceed Pikiell’s preferred speed limit. The Scarlet Knights locked in defensively from that point on and held IU to just 11 points the rest of the way.
In regard to the decision to switch to zone at times and the defense overall in the second half, Pikiell said, “Making adjustments as the game is flying by. It helped us in some areas but slowed the game down, which I didn’t like. There is give and take with everything that you do. Our defense was better. At the end we stopped them and were in man to man. We played great defense down the stretch and that’s the most important thing.”
With the Hoosiers leading by 7 with nine minutes to play, Paul Mulcahy hit a tough shot to spark a 7-0 run by Rutgers that tied the game capped by a patented drive and scoop layup by Baker with just over five minutes remaining.
It went back and forth with Indiana holding a 2 point lead after Xavier Johnson put them back in front with just over three minutes to play. After a Rutgers turnover, Indiana had a chance to lead by two possessions but RU got a huge defensive stop as Parker Stewart missed a three. Cue Geo Baker, who hit a massive three to give Rutgers the 57-56 lead. With yet another big shot in his career, it injected even more belief in the players that they could win the game. Baker finished with 13 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds and 2 steals.
The ending to this game was as wild as it should be for a crucial matchup between NCAA Tournament hopefuls in the first week of March.
Cliff Omoruyi, who finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks and outplayed Jackson-Davis in the second half, was just 1 of 4 from the foul line entering the final two minutes of the game. He earned two trips to the charity stripe with the game in the balance and he came through in a major way. Omoruyi made all four attempts, tickling the twine and showing great form as the ball left his fingertips. He was transforming on the spot under the bright lights into a clutch free throw shooter when Rutgers needed it most. If he didn’t make all four attempts, the outcome could have been much different.
Then things got even more tense after some chippy moments transpired throughout the entire game. Rutgers led Indiana 61-58 and had the ball after another key defensive stop. Baker passed up the court to Paul Mulcahy, who was fouled by Xavier Johnson. The two players had been physical all game and Johnson wrongly thrust his shoulder into Mulcahy’s midsection after the foul, pushing him into the Rutgers bench. Mulcahy responded by swiping Johnson’s head in a forward motion with his open hand. It was a critical mistake that fortunately didn’t prove fatal.
“It’s that time of the game,” Pikiell said. “A lot of emotion. Just happened. I’ll have to see it on film. I was talking to the referee and it was on the other end of the bench, so I didn’t get a great vantage point. They said you can’t act that way. But Paul has been a great teammate his whole career. He knows that.”
Mulcahy was ejected with a flagrant 2 foul call. Pikiell made the heady decision to replace him with Aundre Hyatt, who he likely figured would be who Indiana selected to take the free throws in Mulcahy’s absence. Hyatt has had an up and down season, but the edge he plays with helped him in this situation. He kept his composure but visibly took pleasure in making both foul shots after the Hoosiers challenged him. It was a huge moment and put Rutgers in the lead 63-58. Johnson made both of his free throws on the other end and after Indiana grabbed an offensive rebound, Parker Stewart came through with a huge three in the corner to tie the game. Even though the lead was gone, Hyatt’s two makes were so important in that Rutgers got the ball back without trailing.
What came next was another great moment in a season filled with them. Ron Harper Jr. demanded the ball and calmly brought the ball up the floor before draining the game winning three with 2 seconds remaining.
“It was a great moment for sure. They got two really good looks at a three and the second one went down,” Harper said after the game. “Then, I kind of saw Geo [Baker] looking at me when he inbounded the ball. And his man was pressing. I was like ‘right here, right here.’ And I just got to my spot. And coach Pikiell always tells me I got big onions. So I just had to come through in that moment.”
On deferring to his teammate, Baker said, “I think it’s pick your poison. All I know is when Ron calls for the ball like that than I am going to give it to him every time.”
Credit Pikiell for letting his team play through the biggest moment of the game. He did the same thing against Northwestern and Harper Jr. was just short on the potential game winner. With even more on the line on Wednesday night, Pikiell let his best player seize the opportunity to come through.
“He’s gotten his whole career and wants to take those shots. I felt really comfortable. I had a timeout I could have used, but I felt good and he liked the matchup. He then gets the big tip at the end too. The defensive part of it was huge too. He’s made a lot of great plays for us in his career.”
On the inbounds play, Harper Jr. was able to deflect it and Indiana barely got off a desperation three that never came close. The Hoosier faithful were stunned as Rutgers won their fifth straight against them and seven of the last eight meetings.
“That’s the best. Making a shot at home is great but I feel like a buzzer-beater on the road is even better.,” said Harper Jr., who finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. “The fans were roaring those last couple minutes. They hit that big three and the place kind of just erupted. Then to hear it go from 100 to zero, that’s the best feeling about it.
He added, “Once it left my hand, it felt really good,” Harper said. “That was probably the best three I took all night. It felt like it was really in rhythm. I got good rotation on the ball. I felt like it was really in line. I just saw it go up and I was like ‘it’s good.’”
Rutgers came out on top because of their resolve and their experience. Led by Harper Jr. and Baker, who combined to shoot 8 of 15 from behind the arc. Big shot after big shot was made. Defensively, McConnell and Omoruyi were the catalysts. This team fights and they’ve made it to March with their NCAA Tournament dreams still alive and kicking. They now host Penn State on Senior Day this Sunday at noon. It will be an emotional day but also an opportunity to produce more big moments in a season full of them. Win and Rutgers will improve on their current NET ranking of No. 75. It would also result in the most regular season wins in Big Ten play and likely the program’s best ever finish in the standings as well.
“We got a win today and that’s all that matters,” Harper Jr. said. “We are just going to take it one game at a time again and go after Penn State. They beat us pretty good at their home court, so we are looking to get some vengeance.”
Great players thrive in big moments and fortunately for Rutgers, this group continues to rise to the occasion. There is more work to do but Wednesday night’s win was a critical step forward.