This was the cruelest of endings for Rutgers

The shot was a good one. Maybe that will come as a sliver of comfort across the next weeks and months when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights remember this game. Ron Harper Jr., a 40 percent shooter from

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The shot was a good one. Maybe that will come as a sliver of comfort across the next weeks and months when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights remember this game. Ron Harper Jr., a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range, had an open look.

The Knights were down 3, 63-60, after being up by nine with less than five minutes to go in this second-round Midwest Region game. That alone was sure to haunt them all summer. But now they had one more chance, one last shot to buy five extra minutes, maybe buy five extra days in Indianapolis.

Houston decided not to foul. The Cougars played it straight up. Geo Baker handed the ball off to Harper as the seconds bled off the clock, and Harper had a step of breathing room. He cocked and fired.

“I thought he had a great look,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell would say a bit later. “And I thought it was going in.”

It didn’t go in. It clanged off the left side of the rim, the ball landed in the hands of Cougars guard Tramon Mark, the buzzer blared, and the Rutgers contingent inside Lucas Oil Stadium — so loud, so boisterous, so engaged all night long, screaming themselves hoarse — fell silent.

Baker, Harper and Jacob Young crouched at the waist, as if they’d been sucker-punched in the solar plexus. Which they had. It would only get worse a few minutes later, when the players were informed that the team’s beloved radio analyst, Joe Boylan, had died back in New Jersey after suffering a stroke last week.

So a horrible day would also be a cruel one, too.

Cliff Omoruyi (l. to r.), Myles Johnson, and Ron Harper Jr. walk off the court after Rutgers second round loss.

“They wanted to make this year special,” Pikiell said, his voice landscaped with pain.

“They certainly did.”

Still, they will think about this game for months, for years, maybe forever. They will remember how Miles Johnson’s layup put them up 58-49 with 4:55 to go. They will remember how close they were to the Sweet 16, so close, close enough to taste, close enough to touch.

And will remember how it all began to dissolve.

Houston’s DeJon Jarreau, playing with a hip injury that made you wince every time he took a wrong step, somehow drained a long 3. Quentin Grimes bricked two free throws, somehow got his own offensive board (and Houston had 16 of them on the night, a devastating number) and swished a 3 of his own.

Suddenly it was the Houston fans clearing their throats. Suddenly it was 58-56. And soon enough the Cougars would finish off a season-saving 12-2 push when Mark tipped in a miss, made the free throw, and gave Houston a 61-60 lead with just over 24 seconds to go.

“Every time this team has gotten knocked down,” Pikiell would say, “they’ve gotten back up.”

Just not this time. Just not this night. Baker, who delivered them to a win Friday night over Clemson — first NCAA Tournament win in 38 years for Rutgers — had the ball in his hands, which is exactly where Rutgers wanted it. Baker has been the most important player at Rutgers in decades, the foundation around which this beautiful renaissance along the Raritan River has been built.

But as he tried to make his move Marcus Sasser hedged, stole the ball, and broke into the clear. Harper had no choice but to foul. Sasser made both free throws. And so Rutgers’ season was reduced to a wing, a prayer, and a good look from 3. It wasn’t enough.

“I’ve made that move a million times,” Baker lamented later. “That’s the first time that happened to me.”

Ron Harper Jr. attempts a potential game-tying 3-pointer for Rutgers.

Pikiell may spend some sleepless nights wondering if he took the air out of the ball too soon, slowing Rutgers’ offense to a crawl and halting the momentum of that late nine-point lead. But, then, they will probably all spend some time replaying those final five minutes in their dreams — and their nightmares.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever really forget this or get over it,” Baker said. “There’s better days ahead. I’ve always wanted my legacy here to be a winner and I don’t know where that stands right now.”

The legacy is safe, and it will be forever. But so will a few awful memories of how it ended. Such is the fickle march of March.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mike Vaccaro

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