It was defense. Of course it was defense. After all, these were Steve Pikiell’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights. During the past two years, as Rutgers has put together consecutive winning seasons and gone
It was defense. Of course it was defense. After all, these were Steve Pikiell’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
During the past two years, as Rutgers has put together consecutive winning seasons and gone from punching bag to formidable program, it was all about stopping the other team from scoring, cutting off the paint and limiting driving lanes. Defense was how the Scarlet Knights got to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years, and it was how they won Friday night, too.
In an ugly first half, defense allowed Rutgers to stay close despite poor shooting and even worse ball-handling. And down the stretch, defense saved the game after a 11-point lead had disappeared.
Defense led the 10th-seeded Scarlet Knights to their first NCAA Tournament victory in 38 years, a gritty 60-56 win over No. 7 seed Clemson in Indianapolis. Rutgers (16-11) will face No. 2 seed Houston, an 87-56 winner over Cleveland State, on Sunday in a Midwest Region second-round game.
“It’s better than I imagined, honestly,” said senior Geo Baker, a smile splashed ear-to-ear across his face. “This is something that we’ve all dreamed of for a really long time, but to hear the Rutgers fans and they’re just going crazy, and just knowing that we survived and advanced in March, that’s something that I’ve always imagined.”
Baker’s 3-pointer with 3:49 left snapped a 55-all tie, and Clemson (16-8) managed just one point the rest of the way, missing its final four shots from the field.
The Tigers had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Ron Harper Jr. beat Aamir Simms to the spot, forcing a travel. On the other end, Baker got to a loose ball for a layup; the senior scored Rutgers’ final five points, ensuring the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in three decades wouldn’t be a short one.
Baker hasn’t shied away from his desire to snap the drought. As a sophomore, he wrote “1991” — the last tournament berth for Rutgers — on his sneakers as motivation.
“I always knew this night was going to happen,” he said after Rutgers became the first local team to win a non-First Four NCAA Tournament game since Seton Hall in 2018.
Baker, Caleb McConnell (10 rebounds) and Jacob Young each scored 13 points for Rutgers and Myles Johnson had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots before limping off the floor in the final minute. Simms had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Clemson (16-8), which shot just 35 percent from the field and went to the free-throw line only nine times.
“We had enough grit and enough Jersey tough to get ourselves a win today,” coach Steve Pikiell said in his on-court interview.
Rutgers seemed to take over midway through the second half, ripping off a 15-4 run to go up by 11 after a McConnell 3-pointer. Young led the spurt, scoring five points and creating easy opportunities by pushing pace and creating offense for others.
The Scarlet Knights started the second half on fire, making 10 of their first 17 shots, and sinking four of their first eight 3-point attempts.
Clemson answered with 10 straight points to get within one with 5:31 left. Rutgers, meanwhile, went cold, coming up empty on five consecutive offensive trips, setting up the dramatic finish.
Fittingly, Baker — the senior who has keyed the team’s turnaround — scored Rutgers’ first NCAA Tournament points in 30 years with a 3-pointer. There were bigger shots to come, as well as defensive stops — plenty of them.
“We just felt like it’s meant to be,” Baker said. “When adversity hit, there was no negative energy. We just stuck together.”
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Zach Braziller