DAYTON—Geo Baker held his head for several seconds and gripped his hair with both hands. The fifth-year senior was furious with himself.
This was only the end of the regulation in a tie game. But Baker had the chance to shoot the Scarlet Knights into the winner’s circle right there, and he couldn’t do it. His shot at the horn came up short, and after two dramatic overtime periods, Rutgers was on the short end of a crushing 89-87 defeat to Notre Dame at jammed UD Arena in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four.
“I’ve made that shot a couple of times in my career,” Baker said. “Felt like it was going in.”
Paul Atkinson Jr.’s offensive rebound and follow with 1.4 seconds left in the second overtime, after Ron Harper Jr. had pulled Rutgers even with 22.0 seconds to go in the chaotic close to this instant classic, was the game-winner. Baker tried to quickly dribble to halfcourt, but couldn’t get a shot off in time. His career ended in abject disappointment, as Notre Dame moved on to face sixth-seeded Alabama on Friday in San Diego. It was likely the last game Harper and Caleb McConnell (team-high 23 points) will play for Rutgers, too.
“The emotion at the end, it was heartbreaking to see it all unfold like that,” Harper said in a heartfelt press conference following the first double-overtime in the history of the First Four. “For it to come down like that, it’s just upsetting, it’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking.”
“If there’s a better game in the NCAA Tournament, I got to see it,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Ultimately, the result came down to Rutgers (18-14) not being able to execute in the final seconds at the end of regulation or either overtime. Thie Scarlet Knights had two shots to win at the tail-end of the second half, but Harper and Baker couldn’t convert. After Paul Mulcahy’s 3-pointer gave Rutgers the lead with 8.6 seconds left in the first overtime, they allowed a Blake Wesley layup to pull Notre Dame (23-10) even. And then there was Atkinson, a thorn in their side the entire evening, beating them to an offensive rebound at the end of the second extra session.
It was fitting that Atkinson, the Yale transfer, sent the Irish to the next round. Rutgers had no answer for him as the senior forward scored 26 points, and Notre Dame piled up a whopping 58 points in the paint. Rutgers wanted to limit Notre Dame’s strength as a 3-point shooting team, but Brey adjusted by hammering them in the paint, and the Irish shot 51 percent from the field.
“It wasn’t our regular defense,” coach Steve Pikiell lamented. “We didn’t get any kills. That’s three stops in a row. We usually get a lot of them during the course of the game.”
Not Wednesday night, as the memorable career of Baker’s ended. McConnell and Harper (22 points), seniors with one year of remaining eligibility, could return. But that seems unlikely. An era probably ended for Rutgers in Dayton, one that featured a return to relevance. The program reached consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1975-76, and came up just three points shy of the Sweet 16 last March. It started slow this year, only to finish strong and Dance again.
“I just wish it would never end,” Pikiell said. “These guys have given everything to our program, and they deserve to continue to play. It’s just a tough night for us after playing the way we played and [fighting] the whole time. Goal [Notre Dame] was just one possession better.”