The Rutgers men’s basketball team earned the win over Northwestern 77-73 in an overtime thriller. The Scarlet Knights (17-7, 8-5) trailed the entirety of the game until overtime. The Wildcats (6-16, 1-11) were up as much as 18 points versus Rutgers in the second half. Three players were in double digits for the Knights: graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah (13), sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. (10) and junior guard Geo Baker (25).
Northwestern came out hot, going on a 15-5 scoring run within the first 5 minutes of play. Guard Boo Buie sank 2 three-pointers in back to back possessions early into that run. Rutgers struggled from deep the entire second half, attempting nine beyond the arc and not making one. The Wildcats, on the other hand, shot 6-15 from 3.
The Knights were trailing Northwestern 29-11 at the 8:00 mark in the first half. Rutgers seemed to use the chaotic energy of the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) to its advantage and finished the half on a 16-9 run followed by Baker sinking a mid-range shot in the final seconds. These were his first points, shooting 1-5 from the field in the first half. Overall, the Knights struggled with getting the ball in the basket the entirety of the first half, only shooting 33% from the field.
When the second half began, Rutgers made its presence felt with a monstrous slam from sophomore center Myles Johnson. Regardless of the tone the Knights set, Northwestern still stuck to its game plan and continued to beat Rutgers on backdoor cuts and second chance points. The Knights finally went on the run they needed and cut the lead down to 10 with 5 minutes and 30 seconds to go.
Rutgers went on a 10-0 run and tied the game with less than 3 minutes to go. Baker hit countless clutch shots, including a couple of contested layups and a step back three-pointer to tie the game up within the final minutes. With the help of the RAC’s rowdy environment and Baker, Rutgers battled back and forced the game to overtime.
In overtime, Harper Jr. went half from the line to start out. The Knights then came back down the floor after a defensive stop, which lead to a Baker and-one. He sunk the free throw, which gave Rutgers a 4-point cushion. Northwestern then cut the lead to 3. Not too long after that, Yeboah hit his first 3 of the night while the shot clock was going down to give the Knights a 4-point lead.
Rutgers then fouled the Wildcats, who sunk both free throws. Baker then hit the dagger fadeaway mid-range, his 7th point in overtime alone. Down 4 with less than 20 seconds to go, Northwestern got stuffed at the rim by a Johnson rejection to seal the win.
Head coach Steve Pikiell shared his thoughts after the big win and Baker’s performance.
“It was huge. He’s a good player. I have a ton of confidence in him. People get caught up all the time — shots don’t go in sometimes. I just worry about his defense.” Pikiell said.
He continued, “We watch film all week on playing better defense, he did do that. Everyone else worries about shots going in. I never do with him, Ron (Harper Jr.) or Caleb (McConnell). When you're thinking about shots, you’re not making shots. The more they read their phones, the more that's all anyone talks about.”
Harper Jr. also sunk a big free throw in overtime and played stellar defense. He was diving on the ground for loose balls and battling with the big men for rebounds. He spoke on hyping up the crowd and the RAC’s environment while the team clawed back from down 18.
“8,000 crazy fans, it's unbelievable. The amount of love we have been getting this year and everyone coming out to the RAC — I appreciate that more than anything.” Harper said. "We're just really grateful for Rutgers Nation coming out. They’re like our sixth man out there, they give us that extra sense of energy. When you hear 8,000 fans screaming and yelling, you just want to get a stop for them.”
Even though McConnell didn’t have many points, he contributed to the team by making the plays that go unnoticed in the box score. He played energetic and smart defense. He also played the team’s help defense effectively, and kept the tempo at a high pace on fastbreaks. After being tired from overcoming an 18-point deficit, he spoke on questions regarding Baker's back pain shortly after his epic performance.
“I think his back hurt because he was carrying the team tonight, that’s why. He was on fire, that’s why his back hurt for sure,” McConnell said, with a smile on his face.
Rutgers travels to Ohio to take on the Buckeyes (15-8, 5-7) on Wednesday, Feb. 12th.