The Rutgers men's basketball team finally put its road demons to rest when it defeated Purdue 71-68 in overtime on Saturday. Playing in front of the Boilermakers' (16-15, 9-11) sold-out Senior Day crowd, the Scarlet Knights (20-11, 11-9) relied on defense and clutch shooting to escape with the victory at Mackey Arena and secure the season sweep against their opponent.
Purdue shot 33.8 percent from the floor and just 7 of 29 (24.1 percent) from beyond the arc. With perimeter defense being a point of weakness for Rutgers in recent road games, this was a welcome sign for a team that needed to prove it could win away from the Rutgers Athletic Center. With the Knights doing just that, they are now a lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years.
"This has been a really tough place for us to play. It's been a tough place for everyone to play. I'm just proud of our guys," said head coach Steve Pikiell.
"They've sacrificed a lot ... And today was a perfect example," he said. "Everyone stepped up and made big plays. We were a good basketball team and you saw that, playing in as hostile of an environment as you can. Even when some calls didn't go our way down the stretch we stayed the course. I'm real proud of our guys. I'm happy for Rutgers nation and happy for my team."
Pikiell has a right to be proud of his team. Rutgers continues to make history, as it clinched a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time since joining the conference in 2014. The Knights also have 20 regular-season wins for the first time since the 1982-83 season.
The victory did not come without stress, though. It was a back-and-forth contest all afternoon in West Lafayette, Indiana, and Rutgers almost ended up on the short end of the stick.
The Knights hit the ground running from the opening tip-off, avoiding the large first-half deficit that has plagued them so many times on the road. With Rutgers coming into the game shooting a conference-worst 30 percent from long range, the Boilermakers played percentages and decided to focus on inside defense. The Knights ended up shooting 6 of 9 from three-point range in the opening period, making Purdue pay for sagging off of them on the perimeter.
Rutgers went into halftime up 36-33, with graduate student forward Akwasi Yeboah leading the team with 8 points. Junior guard Geo Baker and sophomore guard Ron Harper Jr. each hit a pair of threes, and the Knights had out-rebounded the Boilermakers 23-13.
Each team struggled on offense in the second half, with Rutgers cooling down from long range and Purdue going through a 1 of 10 stretch from the field. With just less than 6 minutes left, the Knights were down 49-48. It was anyone's game, and that's when Baker decided to take over.
He sank a three-pointer, giving Rutgers a 51-49 lead with 5:43 minutes on the clock. The Boilermakers didn't fold, though, with Sasha Stefanovic converting a three of his own at the other end to snatch the lead right back. This sequence was a microcosm of the back-and-forth affair that characterized the whole game.
Baker kept going with his hot streak, scoring in traffic near the rim to give the Knights a 53-52 lead with 4:13 minutes left to play. He then scored Rutgers' next two buckets as well, giving his team a 57-54 lead with 2:25 minutes left. The co-captain was locked in with the game coming down to the wire.
With the Knights up by 1 with 57 seconds left, junior guard Jacob Young got to the free throw line, but missed both attempts. With 30 seconds left, on the other end, Eric Hunter Jr. hit a layup to give Purdue a 60-59 lead.
From there, it was no secret who Rutgers would give the ball to. With the clock ticking, Baker sized up the defense and took his patented fadeaway contested jumper. The shot went in, giving the Knights a 1-point lead with 14 seconds left.
Hunter Jr. drew a clutch foul for his team with 2 seconds remaining. He sank the first free throw, tying the game at 61. Fortunately for Rutgers, he was off on the second, sending the contest to overtime.
After 2 minutes passed in the extra period, Young put 7-foot-3-inch Matt Haarms on a poster, hammering down an and-one dunk over the big man. It silenced the crowd and energized the Knights, giving Rutgers the last emotional boost it needed.
Baker hit another clutch jumper at the end, and the Knights came away with the victory. The co-captain led the way with 19 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
"It's amazing," Baker said. "It's not even really putting the team on my back. That's my role. Everyone has a role on this team and my role is to get the ball at the end of the game and make a play. I'm very comfortable in that role, win or lose. I want that. I want the ball at the end of the game."
With Rutgers now finished with the regular season, up next for it is the second round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Thursday. The Knights clinched a first-round bye for the first time since joining the conference.
"We are going to enjoy today," Pikiell said. "We've won two games this week over good basketball teams. This is a good team. We can play with anybody in the country. I feel that way about our team, and I think our best days are ahead."
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