BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Say this about Geo Baker.
No matter how bad he shoots at times, he will keep shooting knowing he will make it eventually. He does not lack confidence. He embraces being the guy when everything is on the line. The situation finds him. It’s what makes him so good.
On Wednesday night, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights needed every one of Baker’s 25 points to celebrate a 66-64 victory over the No. 16 Ohio State Buckeyes at Jersey Mike’s Arena. The fifth-year senior spearheaded Rutgers’ 10-0 run by scoring eight points in the final four minutes to lead a comeback after the team trailed 64-56 with 3:48 remaining in regulation.
Rutgers let Baker shine in the final three minutes because it’s his time. He is the right guy in moments like this. He showed that in the last few years, especially in last year’s 60-56 NCAA Tournament victory over No. 7 seed Clemson, in which he scored the decisive layup with 10 seconds left.
Baker started the 10-0 run by hitting two free throws after being fouled by Malaki Branham followed by making a layup.
After Caleb McConnell doing a Tayshaun Prince imitation of blocking Branham’s layup to prevent a dagger by Ohio State, it was Baker that made it count by making a jumper that cut Rutgers’ deficit to 64-62. From there, momentum shifted to Rutgers way with the Rutgers fans yelling at the RAC.
Clifford Omoruyi dunked on a Baker pass to tie the game at 64. It was only fitting that it was Baker that completed the 10-0 run by hitting two free throws after starting it.
As ugly as Rutgers made it at times by mucking it up defensively and missing shots, Baker made it beautiful with his poise and determination when he had the basketball. He knew what he was doing out there, which is why Rutgers was happy to let him cook. It becomes easy once he is used to doing it.
He displayed leadership by delivering when Rutgers needed him Wednesday night.
Rutgers hasn’t had a player like that for a long time, which explains why the program has been awful prior to Steve Pikiell coming in as the coach.
Baker served as Pikiell’s first recruiting class to set a stage for a renaissance, and he lived up to it in more ways than one. It wouldn’t be surprising if his jersey is up in the rafters at Jersey Mike’s Arena one day just for him setting the foundation of sustained success. But also because he was one of the best basketball players that ever played for Rutgers.
Baker’s development serves as a testimonial to how good Pikiell is a coach. Finding a player like Baker that knows what he is doing boosts the Rutgers head coach’s ability to recruit.
Make no mistake. For the Scarlet Knights to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season, they need him to play like the best player on the team. They needed him on a night like this at home against a team that could make an Elite Eight run. The time is now since they are on the bubble for participating in March Madness.
Rutgers plays seven more games in the regular season along with games in the Big Ten Tournament that could determine whether it will be in the tournament or not. February serves as a month that a team starts being in prime shape for the tournament. This is Baker’s time now to shine where everything is on the line.
If Wednesday night is any indication, Rutgers and he can have a fantastic finish on the horizon.
Baker’s performance certainly has everyone wanting more.
It was surprising he stayed for his fifth year. He did all he could at Rutgers here, but he wanted to get an opportunity to do something one more time. Not only does he want the program to get back to the tournament after a taste of it last year, but this time, he wants to take them to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Rutgers could have gone to the Sweet 16 if Baker or anyone else made shots down the stretch against Houston. It didn’t happen. The Rutgers sharpshooting guard took the blame for that one. He expressed regret that he did not get it done knowing he had an opportunity to do something special in getting the program to the Sweet 16, which would have been an exclamation mark of what was a great season last year.
He gets one last opportunity to do so now.
But for him to get that, he needs to will Rutgers to the NCAA Tournament by having more games like the one against Ohio State.
Does anyone want to bet against him?
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