First Four classic made possible by Rutgers’ season-ending defensive breakdown
Rutgers' Harper-Baker-McConnell era ended on a last-second shot in double overtime.
A long time ago, I asked Steve Pikiell if his teams were uniquely suited for the low-scoring rock fights so common around the Big Ten because of their strength on defense. The word I chose that night was “slobber-knocker.” This was January, a much more innocent time.
“It’s a grind, but we can score too,” Pikiell said the night Rutgers held off Iowa 48-46. “The ball wasn’t going in tonight. I just love when you – the ball doesn’t always go in and we figured out a way to win. We scored 93 points in a game two games ago, so we can score points too.”
They could score, all right. The Scarlet Knights put up 87 points, albeit with two overtimes, and shot better than 50 percent on Wednesday night. But they forgot the principles that got them to their second straight NCAA Tournament, and Paul Atkinson Jr. made them pay.
You don’t need me to tell you that Rutgers strayed from its identity of defensive toughness. Pikiell said it about 10 minutes into the game, in a sideline interview coming out of a TV timeout. They were going score for score with their opponents. It wasn’t Rutgers basketball, not what he wants it to be.
Former Rutgers beat reporter Ryan Dunleavy pointed it out during the first half, too, a sign of things to come:
That First Four game will go down as an instant classic. Lead changes. Gigantic shots to tie or take the lead. Cliff Omoruyi’s constant dunks. And, of course, 10 extra minutes of basketball. It just isn’t the type of game Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights are most likely to win. The function matters more than the flash.
“We tried to take away 3s. I thought we did a decent job of that,” Pikiell said. “But they got into the paint. They finished some plays. But they want to shoot 3s is what they want to do. But it wasn’t our regular defense. We didn’t get any kills – that’s three stops in a row. We usually get a lot of them during the course of a game.
“But we needed a big stop at the end. We didn't get it.”
Rutgers’ starting five hit shot after shot, and it looked like a 3-pointer from either Ron Harper Jr., Paul Mulcahy or Caleb McConnell was going to wind up the game-winner. But it was all Atkinson on the other end, and there was no resistance.
The Yale transfer set his personal best in a Notre Dame uniform with 26 points on 13-of-15 shooting; the Irish scored 58 of their points in the paint with him leading the way. Omoruyi checked out during the first half with two fouls in just eight minutes, and the combination of Dean Reiber and forward Mawot Mag weren’t able to slow him down.
The thing is, it didn’t change a ton when Omoruyi returned the game. Atkinson’s scoring pace did slow down, but he went 3-for-3 in the second overtime, putting Notre Dame up 83-81, 85-85 and finally 89-87 just before the buzzer, a fitting end to this contest in more ways than one.
While Notre Dame coach Mike Brey and guard Cormac Ryan applied superlatives, each describing it as the best basketball game they’d ever been a part of, Rutgers’ men understandably weren’t that thrilled.
“A lot of pain right now,” Geo Baker said. “We’ve been through some real battles, us three. Luke (Nathan), everybody on the team, Ralph (Agee). It’s a lot of pain right now. And I don’t really know what to say.”
“It’s March Madness. That’s how it goes down every year,” Harper said. “This game’s just like that night in, night out. That’s what makes it so special. Just sucks to be on the wrong end of it.”
Omoruyi has eligibility remaining, and Reiber certainly had an interesting regular season as he carved out a role in the rotation ahead of a senior transfer like Agee. But the frontcourt is where the Scarlet Knights need to beef up their personnel ahead of next year, with this game surely replaying in the coaching staff’s heads all summer.
Did this Rutgers team fall short of its potential? It’s tough to say. It would have been a sexy upset pick over Alabama in the 6-11 game on Friday, but Texas Tech, then Duke, would probably be waiting after that. The games aren’t played on paper, but Rutgers simply making it into the field of 68 seems very close to this group’s ceiling.
As devastating as the final result was for these senior starters, it likely caps three transformative playing careers. Rutgers has gone from embarrassingly noncompetitive in the Big Ten to frequently occupying the top half of the standings with multiple NCAA bids in a row behind Harper, Baker and McConnell. Fans would do well to remember that.
“Caleb said it best in the locker room, just telling these guys to cherish this moment, cherish college basketball,” Baker said. “Because it feels like we were just freshmen yesterday. We’ve got a special brotherhood now that’s never going to change, that’s never going to end. Just a lot of emotions right now. But playing in that game was really special. That’s what March is about. We just came up short.”
Thanks, as always, for reading. Let’s clean the glass with a few quick notes and get going – I’m sure you’re all as excited as me to park in front of the TV for the Round of 64 today.
McConnell was fixing to be the story of the night had Rutgers won the game. He grew up in Dayton and played high school tournament games in UD Arena where the First Four is held. And something special was cooking for his homecoming: By halftime he’d already set a new season high with 18 points, before cooling off and finishing with 23 plus 11 rebounds. “It wasn’t about me tonight,” the Big Ten DPOY said. “Even though my team wanted to win for me obviously since I’m back home. But it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than basketball. Like I said, it just sucks it had to end this way.”
Two New Jersey teams are left standing: Seton Hall and Saint Peter’s. The No. 15 seed Peacocks face Kentucky tonight. And in the final game of the Round of 64, Seton Hall and TCU tip off in an 8-9 game Friday night out in San Diego. (It would be so much more fitting if they were playing in Pittsburgh. TCU coach Jamie Dixon, of course, was the longtime coach of the Pitt Panthers. He started as an assistant in 1999, the season after head coach Ralph Willard, Kevin’s father, resigned. Kevin played for his dad at Pitt 1994-97.)
“Certainly I know enough about Seton Hall to know they’re much older than us,” Jamie Dixon said. “I saw that and I recruited a lot of these guys back when I was in Pittsburgh so I do know they’re older. ... We’re the youngest team in the (Big 12) and we responded.”
Besides the experience gap (TCU has one player with NCAA Tournament experience, Hall has four), they profile quite similarly as good defensive teams that have grinded out some wins against the best teams in their respective leagues. KenPom has TCU ranked 79th in offensive efficiency and 24th on defense; Seton Hall is 76th and 26th. A toss-up for the ages.
Princeton’s season ended with a 90-79 loss to VCU in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night. It was far closer than that until about eight minutes to go, as Princeton had a few early leads and kept drawing within two or four throughout the second half. Tosan Evbuomwan went for 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists – three assists shy of the first triple-double in program history. But that does it for this version of the Tigers. Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright, Drew Friberg and Elijah Barnes all entered the transfer portal on Monday, all of them with another year of eligibility as grad transfers that they can’t use in the Ivy League.