PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Were they ready for this? A lead had gotten away from Rutgers. Maybe the school’s first home game as a nationally-ranked team since 1979 was too much? When Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell waved his arms, his building got loud. Didn’t matter. A Nebraska shooter hit a three, gave the students a salute. Rutgers was on the ropes, down five, just over 4 minutes left.
The fabled RAC, ancient by college hoops standards, could have gotten quiet, the nation’s longest home winning streak in dire straits against some Cornhuskers who hadn’t won on the road all season.
It did not get quiet. The place was ready. When Nebraska didn’t score over the last three minutes, last shot went to Rutgers, game tied.
Saturday’s last possession doesn’t make up for 13 straight losing seasons. It just tells you where Rutgers is now. Scarlet Knights guard Geo Baker, scoreless for the day until his late three had put Rutgers back within three points, had the game in his hands. When Baker missed an off-balance contested three, a teammate got to the ball, almost traveled, got it back out to Baker for another try.
Eight seconds left, Baker dribbled across his body right to left, then through his legs left to right. Same routine again. And again. And again. The fifth time Baker crossed over, he didn’t go back through his legs. His step-back three, fully in rhythm. Bedlam. Final score: Rutgers 75, Nebraska 72.
“Crazy environment," said Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg.
“They came out," Pikiell said of the building filling up on a nasty afternoon, as Rutgers improved to 15-5, and 6-3 in the Big Ten. “We needed every person today."
The Scarlet Knights, 24th-ranked in the country, scored the last nine points Saturday to get to 14-0 this season in the RAC. A season sweep of the Cornhuskers was the first series sweep against anybody since 2013-14, since before Rutgers joined the Big Ten.
Those of you who are old enough to remember the starting five of the Rutgers ‘76 Final Four team (hey … Bailey, Sellers, Copeland, Dabney, Jordan), good for you (for us.). The problem, what else is there to remember? A banner shows the school’s six NCAA appearances were all scrunched between 1975 and ‘91. The women’s banners that surround the ‘76 Final Four banner hung behind the Rutgers band are far more impressive. That list of Rutgers players who went on to the WNBA has three columns. Where’s the men’s NBA banner?
The RAC opened in 1977 and still feels mostly the same. The concourse is more like an overcrowded hallway. The stands go way, way up. When the place is packed … it’s all just right, trapezoidal sides past the baskets causing the noise from the student section to bounce right down to the court.
In Pikiell, now in his fourth season, Rutgers hired a coach who had gotten it done at Stony Brook. The Scarlet Knights lead the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense, with some impressive length also equating to fourth in the league in rebounding margin. A good combo to compete every night.
An old-fashioned rim protector, sophomore center Myles Johnson, had five blocks and maybe just as many altered shots. One possession, Nebraska got three blocks inside. Johnson blocked two and rendered the third irrelevant. He had some Pac-12 interest playing high school ball in Long Beach, Calif., but his final three schools, Johnson said, had been Hawaii, Georgia Tech and Rutgers. Geography clearly wasn’t the determining factor.
Recruiting is an interesting topic. You need a little success to offer hope. A family member involved in the decision-making for a Philly player who ultimately went in a different high-powered direction lauded Pikiell as a positive and energetic coach. “There is absolutely no way you can convince him that he can’t make Rutgers an elite program," the family member said. “He had us believing it, too.”
They just weren’t ready to close all the deals a couple of years back, bringing recruits into a great atmosphere for an Ohio State game, only to lose by 22.
Right now, brackets master Joe Lunardi has Rutgers as a 7 seed. The Scarlet Knights will have to win some road games to move up higher. But avoiding bad losses is as important as the big wins. This game was that game.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I kind of like those kinds of games," Pikiell said. “You’ve got to figure out how to grind out those kinds of games.”
They are willing to trap all over the court and trust their help defense to deal with the consequences. They do that selectively, however. The constant is the interior defense. They average double figures in scoring, led by sophomore Ron Harper Jr.’s 12.7 points a game. They are still a little young but not raw, with Jacob Young transferring in from Texas, and graduate transfer Akwasi Yeboah from Stony Brook, a leader on arrival. Yeboah made huge plays late, nailing his own tying three-pointer and grabbing that last offensive rebound to set up Baker’s game-winner.
“Normally, not too many cameras here," said a photographer setting up for the postgame press conference, finding it a little more crowded in the back of the room.