For Rutgers, a crushing NCAA Tournament loss won’t diminish what this trio accomplished | Politi

DAYTON, Ohio— The players had filed off the court and headed into the locker room. The pep bands had gathered their instruments and trudged toward the buses. The Notre Dame leprechaun mascot, his plastic walking stick tucked under his arm, had sprinted up a ramp toward the arena exits as he yelled out to anyone within earshot.

“THIS…IS…MARCH!”

It was five minutes past midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, but gathered together in a single section of the University of Dayton Arena, a small group of Rutgers fans would not move long after the final buzzer had sounded. Some stared straight ahead at the court below. Others, with their arms folded, whispered to each other about the incredible NCAA Tournament game they had just witnessed.

None of them, it seemed, could accept that it was over.

Not just this double-overtime thriller — which, to be clear, was the kind of night that would have made Dr. Naismith glad he nailed those peach baskets to the wall. This run. This team. This transformative era in Rutgers athletics history, when an unredeemable college basketball program instead became something unforgettable.

It ended the only way it could, on the final possession, in a game with 17 lead changes and 12 ties and more dramatic moments than anyone could remember. Notre Dame was smart enough to score the go-ahead basket with 1.4 seconds left, which was not even enough time for Geo Baker to pull off one final miracle in his career.

His half-court prayer was too late and too short, and as the Notre Dame fight song started to ring out through the building, the senior guard yanked his No. 0 jersey over his head and stood alone in a far corner of the court.

Notre Dame 89, Rutgers 87.

Baker eventually made it through the handshake line, then found his two longtime teammates. Ron Harper Jr. put his left arm around the neck of a weeping Caleb McConnell, then pulled Baker — who was pinching the bridge of his nose to stop his tears — to his side with his other arm.

That was how the three players who changed Rutgers basketball walked off the floor in their final game as teammates. Harper, the son of an NBA champion who built his own reputation as a clutch shooter. Baker, the skinny kid from New Hampshire who became the face of the program. McConnell, the under-recruited gym rat who turned himself one of college basketball’s best defensive stoppers.

That was the final, gutting image.

“Everything has to come to an end,” McConnell said. “I’m just glad that I was able to do it with these guys, because these guys are amazing.”

The postgame NCAA Tournament press conferences are often emotional when a senior-laden team is eliminated. This might be the first one when the moderator seemed on the verge of a breakdown. Baker sat with his head in his hands. McConnell rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Harper, a towel over his shoulders, only made them more emotional with his words.

“Growing up, all I ever wanted was somebody to respect me, somebody to tell me I’m good enough,” Harper said. “And I found it here at Rutgers. I found a group of guys that believed in me, that trusted me. That’s all I could ever ask for.”

Harper was brilliant in his final game, scoring 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting and hitting a pair of 3-pointers in overtime — including one that banked in as the shot clock expired — that felt certain to be the blow that finally would slay Notre Dame.

Baker, too, had a vintage game, scoring nine points in the final four minutes of regulation — and, as the buzzer sounded, missing a fade-away jumper that would have ended this thing before it became just the 28th double-overtime game in NCAA Tournament history.

And McConnell probably saved the best game of his college career for (what likely is) last, a double-double with 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting and 11 boards. That he did it in his hometown, with dozens of friends and family in attendance, almost made it perfect.

It was not perfect. It was not the ending they wanted or maybe even deserved. But it was an ending that captured the essence of this group in one not-so-tidy two-and-a-half hour package. They didn’t always win, but they almost always found a way to turn even a routine basketball game into something that was impossible not to watch.

A half-court heave to beat No. 1 Purdue. A loss to underdog Lafayette at the buzzer. An unprecedented stretch of four straight wins over ranked teams. A blown second-half lead in the NCAA Tournament against Houston.

A classic against Notre Dame that might be the best game the NCAA Tournament gives us this March, but one that ended this Rutgers season far sooner than anyone would have imagined when the calendar turned to this month.

It was good, it was bad, but it was never, ever boring.

This group will leave Piscataway with a legacy similar to the 2006 football team. If head coach Steve Pikiell can build a consistent winner in the years that follow, Baker, Harper and McConnell will be remembered as the players who took a gamble on the potential at Rutgers — the same bet hundreds of players had made before them and lost — and left behind a lasting legacy.

“I hope we made the fans proud,” Harper said. “I know we came up short today, but we put our heart and soul on the line for this university, for that block R we wear proudly. We want to thank them for all the support, all the ups and downs. None of this is ever possible without them.”

Maybe that’s why so many of the faithful Rutgers who made the trip to Dayton wouldn’t leave their seats when this game ended. The TV crew started to break down their equipment. The janitors started to move into place with their black trash bags.

The unspoken message was clear: It was time to go.

But for those fans, leaving the arena was to accept that something special — this run, this team, this moment in Rutgers athletics history — was over. They weren’t ready to head for the exits, and no one here could blame them.

MORE FROM STEVE POLITI:

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The search for Luther Wright, once NJ’s greatest hoops talent

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Steve Politi may be reached at spoliti@njadvancemedia.

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