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Rutgers men’s basketball has “fighter’s mentality” down the stretch this season

The Scarlet Knights thrive under pressure and their senior leaders explain why.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Three years in a row, Rutgers men’s basketball has gone on the road and ruined senior day for the opposition in earning victories that have solidified their NCAA Tournament resume. The theme remains the same. When this team has its back against the wall and their fate on the line, this group of players have come through repeatedly.

It was no different on Wednesday night, as Rutgers overcame another double digit deficit on the road and adversity throughout the game. Seniors Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. led the way, but the team received key contributions from several members including defensive stalwart Caleb McConnell.

All three will be honored along with Ralph-Gonzales Agee and Luke Nathan ahead of Sunday’s game against Penn State. Harper Jr. and McConnell have a year of eligibility remaining due to an extra year due to COVID-19. They haven’t formally announced their intentions but as most programs at Rutgers have operated, they will be honored regardless of their decision for next year. Baker did the same last season.

When asked what it is about this team that allows them to thrive in such high pressured moments that they’ve succeeded in over the years, head coach Steve Pikiell had plenty to say.

“A great group. They’ve been able to go into some tough environments, this was as tough as any, and win games on senior night,” said Pikiell. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Just proud of them.”

In regard to pulling out Wednesday night’s game against Indiana, Pikiell said, “There was a lot going on. Big, intense basketball game.”

He continued, “We made the big stops when we had to. It’s stops, it’s defense. I didn’t love our defense in the first half but we really grinded it out in the second half. We were real connected. In every huddle, I knew they were connected. Geo wanted to take that last shot at the end too. I love the fact that he gave it to Ron. Ron wanted it. We made the big plays. I’m proud of our guys.”

On what makes this team different, Baker explained, “I think we are just all fighters. I think coach [Steve] Pikiell saw that when he recruited all of us. We knew we had to just dig deep and find a way to get a win. We just have a fighter’s mentality. Our mentality was to come in and ruin their senior night and that’s what we did.”

In 2020, Rutgers had lost six of eight games before beating No. 9 Maryland at home. They then went on the road and defeated Purdue at Mackey Arena to secure the program’s first 20 win season in decades. The victory put the Scarlet Knights into the projected NCAA Tournament field before it was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19.

In 2021, Rutgers had lost four of their last six games including an embarrassing loss at last place Nebraska in the final week. They recovered by outlasting Minnesota in overtime on the final weekend of the regular season before going 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament. The program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years and advanced to the second round for the first time in 38 years.

This season, after a disastrous opening month of the season, this team has continued to fight its way back into NCAA Tournament contention. An historic four game winning streak, followed by a three game losing streak, brought this team to a must win situation on the road once again. They came through in the big moments on Wednesday night and has put this team on the right side of the bubble for now.

Right down to the wire, it’s pretty much been like that pretty much the past three years,” Baker said. “So there is definitely a higher sense of urgency but we are always trying to find ways to win. I feel like we deserve it. We worked for it. We put ourselves in a good position to make the tournament. We just want to finish strong and just find a way to get there.

As for the having the opportunity to close the regular season strong once again and solidify their position for the NCAA Tournament, Ron Harper Jr. discussed the roller coaster ride this team has been on.

“It’s hard not to think about, especially with the season we’ve had,” Harper Jr. said. “It’s been a lot of ups and downs but we control out own destiny. We are fortunate. People told us our season was dead in every month of the season, so we just keep pushing, we just keep fighting. We are not looking at the tournament. We are looking at Penn State and we are just trying to get a win there on senior night. It is going to be a real special day for these guys and for everything we built here. So we are just looking forward to that.”

If Rutgers can beat Penn State, who they lost to 66-49 in Happy Valley in January, they will finish the regular season with the most Big Ten wins since the program joined the league in 2014. Due to the Scarlet Knights owning victories over every team in the top half of the Big Ten standings, they are in a favorable position when it comes to tiebreakers for seeding purposes. As of Thursday, RU can finish the regular season anywhere between 4th and 8th place.

Baker, Harper Jr, and McConnell have made such a significant impact on this program. Rutgers was 16-76 in the first five regular seasons as a member of the Big Ten. With all three players as key leaders and contributors the past three seasons, Rutgers has a regular season record of 32-27. They’ve won at least 10 games three years in a row with a chance to finish a program best 12-8 with a win on Sunday.

Keeping emotions in check will be key for the entire team, which includes its head coach.

“Senior Day is coming up and I am certainly going to cry for all of these guys,” Pikiell said. “These guys believed in Rutgers when there wasn’t as much to believe in here. I am really thankful for them.”

As for the fans, get to your seats by 11:30 am for senior day ceremonies. All of the seniors deserve a proper reception for all they’ve done and as energetic an environment as possible in what is another must win game. It’s been such a tough place to play at home due to the RAC faithful and Sunday is the last chance to rock the place one more time this season.

While another run in the big dance is the ending this team wants, no matter what happens the rest of the way, this team has changed the culture and perception of Rutgers men’s basketball. With as many big shots as Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. have made over the years, they have become the founding fathers in making this a winning program for the first time in the modern era. The hope is there are more significant victories ahead of this group in the next month.

“We still have a lot of basketball left with a lot of opportunities down the road here,” reminded Pikiell. “We’ve got to be focused on those coming up.”

At this time of year, this group has always proven to be at their best and Wednesday night was no exception. Whenever this season and their careers end, there should be little doubt this team will go down swinging.