The Rutgers men’s basketball team’s season came to a heartbreaking end in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio. The Scarlet Knights (18-14, 12-8) fell 89-87 in double overtime to Notre Dame in what was one of the most intense college basketball games of the season.
The first half saw a fast-paced contest from the two teams. Rutgers was able to keep pace thanks to a stellar first half performance from senior guard Caleb McConnell, who was playing not far from Dunbar High School where he played high school basketball.
McConnell erupted for 18 first half points, a new season-high. This included a transition layup to beat the buzzer which gave the Knights a 41-36 lead entering the break.
Off a made three-pointer from senior guard Ron Harper Jr. to open the second half of scoring, Rutgers took its largest lead of the game. From that point, the Fighting Irish (23-10, 15-5) battled back into the game, eventually tying the game with 9:59 to go.
After another Baker jumper, the two teams stood tied at 69 points with 1:46 to go. That score would stay the same as Baker and Harper each had a shot to win it in regulation, but both missed as the game went to overtime.
With 49 seconds to go in the first overtime and Rutgers down 2 points, Harper banked in a three-pointer to give the Knights a 76-75 lead. After a stop on defense, the Knights had possession with a 1-point lead and 27 seconds to go.
On the ensuing inbounds pass, junior guard Paul Mulcahy threw it too high for Harper, landing into the hands of Cormac Ryan, who made a layup to give the Fighting Irish the lead back with 25 seconds left.
Mulcahy would make up for his mistake with a massive three-pointer to give Rutgers a 2-point lead with time winding down. With 2 seconds left, Blake Wesley converted a layup that sent the game to a second overtime.
Notre Dame held a 3-point lead in double overtime as the Knights prepared for one of their final possessions. In another round of late-game heroics, Harper sunk a deep three-pointer to tie the game back up at 87.
On the Fighting Irish’s final possession and with Rutgers needing one stop to send the game to a third overtime, Paul Atkinson Jr. rebounded a Wesley missed layup to win the game. The loss ends what is an unforgettable Knights season.
McConnell finished with a team-high 23 points, 2 points shy of his career-high of 25 points. His 83.3 field goal percentage is the best mark by a Rutgers player in an NCAA Tournament game. McConnell also grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, his second double-double of the season and second in the NCAA Tournament.
“I found a group of guys here at Rutgers that believed in me, trusted me,” McConnell said. “They made me into the player I am today. It's an unbreakable brotherhood with these guys. I'm proud of the culture that we built. These last four years are something that I'll remember and cherish for the rest of my life.”
Harper finished with 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and four three-pointers. Baker finished his career as a Knight with 19 points, six rebounds and five assists while sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi had 15 points and six rebounds.
"It was a great game. We came just a little bit short. It was heartbreaking at the end to come up just short after all we've been through,” Baker said after the game. “That's March Madness. That's how it goes down every year and that's what makes it so special, just tough to come up on the wrong end of it."
The Knights shot 50.7 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from three. Despite this, Rutgers allowed Notre Dame to shoot 51.4 percent and score 58 points in the paint. The Fighting Irish’s biggest weapon entering the game was its three-point shooting, but the team only made six three-pointers. The Knights outrebounded Notre Dame 44-32.
Atkinson was the man for the Fighting Irish, scoring a game-high 26 points on 13-of-15 shooting and six rebounds. Three other players scored in double-figures for Notre Dame, including 18 points off the bench from Nate Laszewski.
The Fighting Irish now move on to play sixth-seeded Alabama on Friday in San Diego, California. As for Rutgers, its season ends in heartbreak with Baker, Harper and McConnell set to depart the program.
"I love my team. We had a special season. A historic group. These guys turned the program around," said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Tip of the hat to Notre Dame, they were one possession better. But this group has been unbelievable for three years, I wish it would never end. They've given everything to our program."
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