It was fitting, maybe even poetic. Of course Rutgers didn’t make it easy. Of course the Scarlet Knights had to rely on their grit and a last-second defensive stand that nearly gave their fans a heart attack.
It’s that attribute that has turned Rutgers into a March contender. On Senior Day for program linchpins Geo Baker, Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr., blowing out an opponent wouldn’t feel right.
Defending the life out of an opponent, making key plays down the stretch in a tight game they had to have felt like a perfect end to their home script at sold-out Jersey Mike’s Arena, a heart-pounding 59-58 victory over playing-out-the-string Penn State that likely locks up Rutgers’ second straight NCAA Tournament bid.
After Paul Mulcahy threw the ball away in the final seconds, Baker wouldn’t let Sam Sessoms by him, forcing him into a difficult fadeaway at the horn that wasn’t close. Harper led the way with 15 points and Cliff Omoruyi and Dean Rieber each had nine.
It was at times ugly. Rutgers left plenty of points on the court. It didn’t put away the Nittany Lions despite several opportunities. But the Scarlet Knights found a way, as they have so often over the last three years.
Over the first eight minutes, Steve Pikiell’s team forced three shot-clock violations. It forced another after the under-four minute timeout after Penn State had cut a 15-point deficit down to seven.
After the Nittany Lions had pulled even on the strength of a 19-6 run with 2:00 left, Harper sank one of two free throws to give Rutgers the lead back for good. Harper then drew an offensive foul on Seth Lundy and Sessoms missed a contested jumper. McConnell hit two free throws on the other end with 31.4 seconds left, pushing the lead to three. Baker, after digging out the rebound of a Greg Lee miss, hit one more at the line, and had the defensive stand in the final seconds on Sessoms.