Harper Jr. scores career-high 27 points as Rutgers inches closer to securing tournament bye
It was quite the revenge game for the Rutgers men’s basketball team last Saturday, as it defeated then-No. 22 Iowa on the road just three games out from one of the most devastating losses in program history.
The Scarlet Knights (14-14, 7-11) essentially embarrassed the Hawkeyes (21-8, 10-8) on their home floor, getting back at them for hitting one of the best game-winning shots of the year in all of college basketball. Rutgers won 86-72 and helped knock Iowa out of the top 25, giving it more ground to cover in hopes of keeping its two-round bye for the Big Ten Tournament.
But the Knights are in their own battle to stay in the race for a first-round bye for the conference bracket, and currently sit in the No. 8 seed with two games remaining. Rutgers will host Penn State tomorrow night for the home finale at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) before traveling up to Bloomington, Indiana to face Indiana for the final game of the season.
Here are four takeaways of the Knights’ final stretch of regular season games:
Harper Jr. explodes
True freshman forward Ron Harper Jr. made his five-time NBA champion father proud on Saturday night after scoring a career-high 27 points against the Hawkeyes. After already setting a previous high of 16 points three games ago against Iowa, Harper Jr. seemed to have this game circled on his calendar just like the rest of Rutgers did.
He also added five rebounds, an assist and a block to his stat line to go with his 9-13 shooting performance, leading him to his first ever Big Ten Freshman of the Week award. His performance was the second-highest scoring mark by a freshman Knight since former guard Corey Sanders scored 28 points against Nebraska in 2016.
Harper Jr. also had his season average jump nearly a point with just that one game, from 6.7 to 7.5 points per game, and has become a viable scoring option for Rutgers over the last few games.
Aside from Harper Jr.’s 69-percent shooting, the Knights had their best performance from the field against a Big Ten opponent on Saturday when they shot 50.8 percent on 30-59 shots.
Sophomore guard Geo Baker had a season-high nine assists on the night to go along with 9 points, six rebounds and two steals. Junior forward Issa Thiam — 13 points on 4 3-pointers in 10 minutes of play — and true freshman guard Caleb McConnell — 11 points, five rebounds and two steals — provided valuable minutes off the bench for Rutgers, as well.
One more go-around
Tomorrow night’s home finale against the Nittany Lions (12-17, 5-13) marks senior night down at the RAC, as the Knights will bid farewell and honor graduate student center Shaquille Doorson. The 7-foot Netherlands native has been on the Banks since the 2014-15 season, and has played in 118 games (32 starts), scored 248 points, grabbed 327 rebounds and blocked 75 shots.
Tripled in one year?
Rutgers has a chance to triple its Big Ten conference record from last year if it wins its final two games of the season. The Knights showed a glimpse of what they could do in this conference after last year’s Big Ten Tournament, when they were the bottom seed, and upset their opponents in the first two rounds before falling in the third.
Despite its overall record seemingly unchanged by much, Rutgers has proved to be a problem in big games against big opponents. Penn State will come into the RAC as the second-to-last team in the conference, having already lost to the Knights earlier this season on its home court.
Combine senior night with a sold-out crowd in one of the hardest spots to play in the conference, the Lions have got some trouble ahead. But Penn State has been hot as of late, and are winners of 3 of their last 4 games. It will give Rutgers all it has got.
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