rutgers ncaa tournament
Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers is moving on to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament after knocking off the Clemson Tigers 60-56.

Danny Small

This game was 38 years in the making for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, but Steve Pikiell and his squad aren’t content with just making the Big Dance. They want to make some noise too.

Rutgers beat Clemson 60-56 to get the school’s first win in the NCAA Tournament since 1983. It wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win. It took a total team effort to advance past Clemson. Four different players scored in double figures to help push Rutgers through to the round of 32.

Geo Baker, Jacob Young, and Caleb McConnell figured out how to be in the right place at the right time down the stretch. Whether it was Young knocking down a clutch three, McConnell grabbing a loose ball, or Baker finishing a layup after a pinball pass, they found a way to make the winning play.

It was fitting that Baker scored the layup that put the nail in the coffin for Clemson. No player represents the turnaround in Piscataway more than Baker. The senior has been through thick and thin with Pikiell and this program. After two losing seasons, they had finally broken through in 2020, only for the pandemic to strike.

“This group is just tough,” Pikiell said in a postgame interview. “They’ve been tough for two years. I’m proud of them… We had enough grit and enough Jersey toughness to get ourselves a win today.”

Baker, who put up 13 points and three assists in the win, spoke with reporters after the game. For Baker, the moment was better than he could have imagined.

“This experience today, it was better than I imagined. This is something that we’ve all dreamed of for a really long time. To hear the Rutgers fans in there just going crazy and just knowing that we survive and advance in March. That’s something that I’ve always just imagined and it was crazier than I ever even pictured.”

So what’s next for Rutgers? They play No. 2 Houston on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights were able to escape with a win against Clemson even though they didn’t have their A-game. They can’t repeat this effort if they want to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1976.

The good news for Pikiell and his squad is that Ron Harper Jr. can’t shoot the ball much worse than he did on Friday night. Harper was 3-for-14 from the floor and 0-for-6 from deep. To his credit, the junior guard impacted the game in other ways, namely one key block in the final seconds.

If Harper, the team’s leading scorer this year, can figure out a way to bounce back against Houston, Rutgers will have a puncher’s chance. Baker seems to think that this group is “special” enough to make a little more noise before everything is said and done.