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Looking back: Oral history of Rutgers men's basketball's 2021 upset against Purdue

Fans will never forget former Rutgers men's basketball star Ron Harper Jr.'s buzzer-beating game-winner against then-No.1 Purdue. – Photo by Ben Solomon /

You would be hard-pressed to find a fan of the Rutgers men's basketball team who does not remember what happened the last time Purdue played at Jersey Mike's Arena on Livingston campus.

For a quick reminder, on Dec. 9, 2021, the Scarlet Knights welcomed the then-No.1 ranked Boilermakers to Jersey Mike's Arena. Rutgers was without one of its star players, Geo Baker, who came down with the flu the morning of the game. Despite this, the Knights stuck with Purdue the entire game and had a 1-point lead with 10.2 seconds remaining.

Trevion Williams would make a tough layup with only 3.4 seconds left to give the Boilermakers the lead and seemingly crush Rutgers' hopes and dreams, but Ron Harper Jr. had the answer, dribbling the ball up-court, splitting two defenders and nailing a buzzer-beating half-court game-winning shot to send the crowd into a frenzy and an impromptu court storm. It was the Knights' first win over a No. 1 ranked opponent in program history.

The moment went down in Rutgers lore and created a lasting memory for those who were in the stands.

Jack Bisaha, a University and The Daily Targum alum, was covering the team at the time, and though he acknowledged how special Harper Jr.'s shot was, he also did not want the shot to minimize how great the entire game was.

"Because of (Harper Jr.'s) shot, people forget how good the game actually was," Bisaha said. "Great crowd, wild swings in momentum … and then, of course, the shot. I'll never forget when Jaden Ivey traveled with 20 seconds to go. It felt like the roof was about to blow off the building."

Bisaha attended the postgame press conference, where he got the chance to talk to Harper Jr.

"What struck me was how calm (Harper Jr.) was talking to the media," Bisaha said. "He just hit the greatest shot of his life, he was blowing up on social media (and) Magic Johnson was tweeting at him. But he seemed unfazed — it was like he'd been there before."

Bisaha was not with the crowd when they stormed the court, but he made it clear that it was a night he would never forget.

"Overall, it was a night I'll remember for the rest of my life," Bisaha said.

It was also Jessica Klein's, a University alum, first game and the game that got her hooked on University basketball.

"For my first basketball game, it definitely set the standard very high," Klein said. "As soon as Ron Harper scored the buzzer-beater, the stadium was electric. I was in such shock that I didn't even realize people were storming the court."

As Harper Jr. hit the shot and ran toward the direction of his bench and the scorer's table, there was a mad dash of fans storming the court in a state of rapture. Eventually, the entire court was covered with people, and Klein was caught up in the fervor and excitement.

"The energy at the game is so contagious, you can't help but get involved and cheer," Klein said.

Patrick Walther is a North Carolina State alum but grew up going to University games with his grandfather. Walther was seated behind the Knights bench and had a good feeling walking into the arena.

"Something just felt right in the atmosphere when I walked in," Walther said.

But Walther almost did not make the game. He was finishing up his finals in Raleigh, North Carolina, the night before and was feeling tired after driving home to New Jersey. Despite his drowsiness, his girlfriend convinced him to attend.

"My girlfriend, at about probably 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, said to me, 'We should really go to the game because if anything happens, you're gonna regret for the rest of your life not being there,'" Walther said.

Walther's girlfriend was right, and Harper Jr.'s shot left him in shock.

"I see the ball go up, and I think for a second, 'Wait, that's on target,'" Walther said. "And then it goes in, and it all felt like a blur, and (I) just started screaming and yelling, and I put my hands on my head."

For Walther, the moment after Harper Jr.'s shot was one of pure happiness.

"It was just this moment of bliss," Walther said.

Nicholas Gonzalez, a School of Management and Labor Relations junior, remembers feeling dejected when Williams hit his layup with 3.4 seconds left, and when Harper Jr. hoisted up his half-court heave 3 seconds later, Gonzalez didn't hear anything.

"As soon as he started going up the court, and he let up the shot, I just remember how silent it got — you couldn't hear anything," Gonzalez said. "And then as soon as it hit, the place just erupted like crazy. It was the loudest I've ever heard it get in there, and it gets really loud in there, but that was like a whole other level of crazy."

Gonzalez and the fans around him were tense throughout, especially when Harper Jr. threw a pass away that was meant for Caleb McConnell toward the latter stages of the game. But those tense moments were met with relief once Gonzalez saw Harper Jr.'s shot swish through the bottom of the net.

"I don't think anything has come close to that game. That was just a whole other level of crazy," Gonzalez reiterated.

Jake Schmied, a Rutgers, Targum and WRSU alum, called the second half of the game for 88.7 WRSU-FM. His call of Harper Jr.'s game-winner, where he proclaimed in delirious excitement, "The train is off the tracks" four times, gave Schmied a viral moment.

"My phone was buzzing until I went to sleep late," Schmied said. "I saw these 50-plus notifications on my phone, which I never seen before, all about the call. But I'm just glad that it was something (that was) synonymous to the win and the program … It was a pretty special night."

As for Schmied's famous phrase, "The train is off the tracks" — Schmied came up with that on the spot but had an idea for the phrase since halftime.

"I came up with it because I was thinking of it in the moment, and the first thing that came to me when I thought of Purdue was 'Boilermakers, trains, Purdue,'" Schmied said. "But it was always in the back of my head."

Even before the call, though, Schmied could feel that something special might be going down.

"I knew there was gonna be something magical — I could feel it. It was very palpable," Schmied said.

Through all the frenzy of the moment and the call itself, Schmied surprisingly did not let himself get carried away and remained calm.

"I knew the urgency of the moment, but I also felt a sense of calm wash over me," Schmied said.

Everyone who the Targum interviewed agreed on one thing: It was the greatest Rutgers sporting moment they have witnessed to this point.

Rutgers will have another opportunity to notch a signature win against Purdue this Sunday. The game will tip-off at 1 p.m. and be broadcast on FOX and 88.7 WRSU-FM.

For more updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on X.

To view more of Ellis Gordon's work, follow @EllisVGordon on X.

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