March Madness often comes down to irresistible forces meeting immovable objects. One example of that is when two teams built via entirely antithetical philosophies meet to determine which construction reigns supreme. Another is when a long-snakebitten program seeks to throw off the weight of history. Like Rutgers, say. The true second-round matchup Sunday night was not between Rutgers and Houston, but between the Janusian aspects of Rutgers and Buttgers. The Scarlet Knights had all the momentum in the world, carrying into the game’s final minute the lead, the pace of play, the warm feelings of the team’s first NCAA men’s tournament in 38 years, and all the spiritual support from the fine citizens of the great state of New Jersey. Would that be enough to topple That Whole Rutgers Thing? It would not.
From 1:27 remaining in the game until 0:04, Rutgers would see its 60-57 lead become a 63-60 Houston advantage, and would, somehow, not even attempt a shot. It’s tempting to chalk it up to nerves, for a roster that’d never been this far before, feeding off a fanbase who by and large had not been this far in living memory. It’s harder to ascribe anything metaphysical when you look at each of the Scarlet Knight’s last possessions; sometimes the better team plays like it when it matters the most, and, sometimes, even after you’ve finally, finally reached the big time, you still barf all over yourself.
The Rutgers offense, such as it is, devolved in the game’s waning seconds into a series of iso plays, with the Knights seemingly more concerned with dribbling down the clock than getting a good look to score in a one-possession game. With 31 seconds left, Jacob Young dribbled right into the triple team and kicked out to no one. After a bucket-and-one on the other end to give the Cougars the lead and Rutgers some offense, senior guard Geo Baker tried to create his own shot and promptly handed the ball away. Rutgers turned the ball over just 13 times, but two of those came in the final minute.
“I just lost it,” Baker said. “That’s a move that I’ve made like a million times. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever lost it in that position.”
A Ron Harper Jr. three attempt with four seconds left was the Knights’ best look since their last points exactly two minutes earlier, but it clanked out and Houston escaped with the win.
Look, this is what was supposed to happen. Houston was the 2-seed, Rutgers the 10, the Cougars sport a top-10 offense and defense and the second-best point differential of any team in the tournament, while the Scarlet Knights boast a tough D but not much on the other end. But Rutgers had this one. They had it. Instead, they have a disappointment that Baker said he’s not sure he’ll ever get over, and an offseason to wonder what might have been. I think it’s fair to say that on Sunday, Rutgers officially became a member of the Big Ten.