You didn’t expect it to be easy, did you? Being a Rutgers fan long enough, endings like Sunday’s 59-58 win over Penn State is not surprising at all. In fact for old timers like myself or older, the fact that they hung on to win was the bigger surprise. Being that it was the final home game for a program changing senior class that led to every single person in attendance and watching from home held their collective breath made it the perfect ending.
Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell didn’t just change the culture of the program. They also changed the reality of what it’s like to be a Rutgers fan. Winning games down the stretch that this program ALWAYS and I mean ALWAYS lost so many times before over the years.
It’s not that Rutgers failed down the stretch, but rather they persevered. The walls were closing in. The doubt was growing. A stomach punch loss was inevitable until it wasn’t. This group that’s overcome so much adversity in their careers had one more heart racing performance in them at the RAC. It might not have been drawn up the way everyone had hoped, but the result was all that mattered.
The senior class and specifically this Rutgers team will never be confused for playing a beautiful game. Winning ugly is part of this group’s identity and they needed every bit of it to win on Sunday.
Give Penn State credit. They did the exact same thing to Illinois on Thursday night, pushing them to the brink after trailing the entire game. The Nittany Lions never gave up and they’ve always played Rutgers tough over the years. The Scarlet Knights led 46-31 with 12:39 to play and it seemed like a comfortable close was next. Until it wasn’t as PSU held RU to just 13 points the rest of the way.
There were missed shots, including too many free throws that didn’t go in (9-17), turnovers and Penn State dominated the boards. They were +13 for the game including +9 on the offensive glass, which led to a 15-4 advantage on second chance points.
What ultimately won the game was what we’ve come to expect in the Steve Pikiell era. Defense, defense, defense. It wasn’t close to their best defensive performance, but they held PSU to 32% shooting.
Rutgers also got big contributions from their bench in the win too. Dean Reiber had 9 points, all in the first half, along with 3 rebounds and provided a major lift with Cliff Omoruyi on the bench with two fouls. Aundre Hyatt made two three-pointers at critical times for 6 points along with 2 rebounds.
In the end, the close call didn’t matter. Rutgers won a program best 12th regular season game in Big Ten play, the most for the program since joining the conference eight years ago. They’re one Iowa loss at Illinois on Sunday night from earning the coveted No. 4 seed and double bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament. They’ve already clinched a program best No. 5 seed at worst.
In talking to Baker, Harper Jr., McConnell and Steve Pikiell about their journey in turning this program around, staying the course was the dominant theme. They never left when those opportunities presented themselves. They never quit. They never let the criticism and doubts bring them down. They kept fighting. They kept playing. Most importantly, they kept winning.
After an embarrassing start to the season with three consecutive losses to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass, this team kept grinding and grinding and grinding. Even after they lost three of four games against the bottom four teams in the Big Ten, they kept grinding.
After trailing Northwestern by 24 points to eventually lose by 1 in overtime, they were left for dead. At 12-9 overall and 6-5 in Big Ten play with a very difficult schedule remaining, Rutgers kept grinding and made history as a result.
They finished the regular season 6-3 including consecutive wins over co-Big Ten champion Wisconsin and Illinois, as well as top half conference teams in Ohio State and Michigan State. They became the first unranked team in college basketball history to beat four nationally ranked teams in consecutive games.
When a three game losing streak followed, the Scarlet Knights had their backs against the wall once again. And now, for a third straight year, they have closed out the regular season with victories they had to have to punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. While they haven’t necessarily clinched another bid to March Madness quite yet, they are in position as of now to get there per most bracketology projections. Another win in the Big Ten Tournament would likely clinch it but avoiding a Quad 3 loss is essential. It might not even be possible if the double-bye comes to fruition.
All that being said, it was a perfect ending in the last home game for Baker, Harper Jr. and McConnell. It was a Jimmy V special as the day was filled with all kinds of emotion. Rutgers left the fan base laughing, crying and deep in thought after what the experience of that game brought. With what this season has brought. And most importantly, it’s not over because this team hasn’t quit. They overcame defeat to win at Indiana and against Penn State, who they lost three straight against.
The postseason is here and Rutgers men’s basketball is relevant. There is a lot left to play for in a season that was not long ago considered a lost one. There was plenty of bad losses, doubts, adversity and criticism along the way. In the end, this senior class has Rutgers in position to make even more history in closing in on back to back NCAA Tournament appearances since the 1975-1976 Final Four team did the same. They’ve overcome so much and Sunday was no different.
Yes. Rutgers has to play better to make a run in both the Big Ten Tournament and hopefully, the NCAA Tournament. Those are concerns for another day. The most important takeaway is how battle tested this team is.
Sunday was about celebrating a transformational senior class and in the end, they won in a fitting way. They outlasted what felt like a crushing defeat that Rutgers fans have suffered through so many times before. Instead, they secured the best finish for the program since joining the Big Ten. They stayed the course and have charted a new destination all in the same journey. Salute this group and this team. March is just beginning.
The senior class led by Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. & Caleb McConnell helped Rutgers to its best ever record (12-8) & highest finish (4th place) in Big Ten play since joining the league. The program had never won more than 3 games nor finished out of last place before they arrived.— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) March 7, 2022