Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell’s much-ballyhooed recruiting class featured Ron Harper Jr., Shaq Carter and Montez Mathis to build his basketball program from the ground up. He picked them with the idea they could play in big games like Tuesday night against No. 20 Penn State at Rutgers Athletic Center.
Harper embraced the opportunity of being the guy that would take Rutgers to its first NCAA Tournament since 1991. He may just do it this season.
He knew he had to get it done in Rutgers’ big game against a formidable opponent in quite some time, and he did just that by scoring 22 points and grabbing five rebounds in Rutgers’ 72-61 victory over Penn State.
In a season that is deemed as a down season for the Big Ten, this is Rutgers’ best chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Scarlet Knights improved to 12-3 in the season, and they are 3-1 in conference play, which is good for a tie for second place in the Big Ten. With three winnable games coming up against Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa, they can reach 15 wins. If they can get six more wins after that, they should be in, and it’s doable.
Harper knows this, and he is determined to do something about it. He played like it, especially in the second half when he spearheaded the Scarlet Knights’ 12-1 scoring run to give them the win. He did it all from getting loose balls, grabbing rebounds, setting up picks and scoring. He played like a man possessed in a game Rutgers needed him to play like one.
This is who Harper is. He plays like a guy who is mature for his age. He understands the responsibility of being a star. He shines in big games. After all, he once did all he could to lead Don Bosco Prep by scoring career-high 33 points in a 61-54 loss to a loaded Roselle Catholic team in the New Jersey Tournament of Champions Final. Those attributes sold Pikiell to get him.
With Rutgers trailing 31-28 at halftime, Harper knew he had to play better. He needed to pick up the scoring load in Geo Baker’s absence. He understood Rutgers needed him more than ever with Baker out with a thumb injury.
He set the tone by grabbing a rebound off Myles Dread’s miss to start Rutgers on offense in the second half. Then, he made a layup to give Rutgers a 33-32 lead, its first lead of the game since taking a 4-3 lead.
After Penn State responded to Rutgers taking a 47-41 lead by going on an 8-0 run, taking a 49-47 lead, Harper made a layup to tie the game at 49.
Then, he spearheaded a 16-3 run that put the game away for good by being in the free throw line and hitting eight free throws down the stretch to go along with a layup, giving the Scarlet Knights a 68-54 lead after Penn State took a 51- 49 lead.
Yes, Mathis (eight points) and Jacob Young (13 points) helped him out in the second half, but make no mistake. Harper earned almost all of what he got in this game by playing defense and scoring when he had to. He applied all the lessons he learned about playing in a big game from high school to the college level.
On a night Rutgers could have used Baker to match up with Mike Watkins’ shooting, Harper picked up the slack.
Harper pined for games like Tuesday night. He knew this was his shot to show Rutgers and the Big Ten why he is a player to be reckoned with. It was a national showcase to show he can be an NBA player one day just like his father.
There will be more games like this for him as the season progresses. With the conference schedule underway, every game is a playoff game. For him to come up big, it’s encouraging for him and Rutgers since he can be relied on. This was as good as it gets for him.
The Scarlet Knights should be an NIT team, but they know they can do better than that. They can be in the dance, and maybe win a tournament game. Opportunities don’t come like this often in a conference that features so many good teams. Most of the teams are mediocre and beatable this season. Only Michigan State and Ohio State stand out in the conference while the rest are slim pickings in the Big Ten.
Harper understands that, and that’s why he knew he had to play with a sense of urgency in a game of Tuesday night’s magnitude.
No question Pikiell loved what he saw out of his star in a test that he aced.
This should bode well for Rutgers in March when stakes get much higher.