BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell felt numb after the buzzer sounded and when it was time to shake hands with their Notre Dame counterparts after a great First Four contest that lasted two overtimes.
To play their hearts out and end up being an 89-87 loser to Notre Dame on Wednesday night at the University of Dayton arena was tough to accept from their perspective. It should hurt. It’s something these seniors will remember for the rest of their lives.
These guys came to Dayton with the dream of going as far as they can. The goal was to play in the next weekend when the Sweet 16 starts. They did not even get to Friday. They went one and done. Tough way to go out that way.
Rutgers did all it could to fend off its First Four opponent, but in the end, Paul Atkinson Jr. refused to lose this game for Notre Dame by scoring points when the Irish needed it the most by scoring 26 points. Clifford Omoruyi and McConnell got beat often against Atkinson. It was only fitting that he won the game for Notre Dame by scoring on a put-back with two seconds remaining in double overtime.
Baker and Harper did all they could to match what Atkinson was doing. Instead, it went for naught. Those two put on a valiant effort just to come up short. This is another reason this loss hurts since no one will remember what they did because of the final score.
After the game, the Scarlet Knights did not put on a brave front. They know it hurts. There won’t be next time. This is definitely it for Baker, and this is likely it for Harper and McConnell.
When Harper, Baker and McConnell walked off the court with their arms around each other’s shoulders while sobbing in the process, it illustrated the agony of defeat that stings and will always sting.
Wherever this subsides, history will remember this trio for making Rutgers basketball relevant. They set the foundation for future Rutgers classes. They built a winning culture for other players to follow. When Rutgers go much deeper in the tournament in the coming years, we can look back at this trio.
But this doesn’t make it any better for those guys. They wanted to be the group that got Rutgers to the Sweet 16. It would have been quite a wrap to their excellent careers here.
It sure seemed like it would have been destiny for Rutgers with the way Baker kept shooting.
It just did not come out that way in the end. The Scarlet Knights did more to lose than to win in the end. They struggled to box out often. They gave up 58 points in the paint. They allowed Notre Dame plenty of second chances to score late in regulation and in the overtimes. At times, Notre Dame was open to making layups and shots. Rutgers ran a hideous inbound play that resulted in a turnover and Notre Dame scoring.
Here’s the bottom line: Rutgers defense could not get the stops when it needed it the most.
The defense is the Scarlet Knights’’ calling card. No one thought it would be their weakness, but it turned out to be a liability on this night.
In the end, Rutgers had nothing left. They were running on fumes late in the second overtime. It was obvious by how they were defending Notre Dame.
Notre Dame certainly believed it could beat Rutgers by hanging around. It came down to who would survive in a grind-out style. Everyone picked the Scarlet Knights to win this game because they are used to playing in grind-it-out Big Ten contests that would serve them well in the NCAA Tournament. No one thought the Irish would be equipped for that.
It turned out that wasn’t the case. The Fighting Irish are heading to San Diego to play Alabama while the Scarlet Knights are going back to Piscataway to clean out their lockers and resume spring semester classes.
This loss hurts even more than the tournament game against Houston last year. Rutgers was well-equipped to go far with Baker being polished and Harper and McConnell emerging into stars.
After the Scarlet Knights talked about Dayton being the place for them to make a tournament run, it turned out to be a heartbreak city for them.
There will not be one shining moment for the seniors.
It’s why your heart goes out to them.