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PISCATAWAY – While it was known as the RAC, Rutgers’ home basketball arena devoured its share of college basketball heavyweights.

For the first time as Jersey Mike’s Arena, Rutgers not only ate a Goliath for lunch; they scored their biggest regular-season win in program history.

Ron Harper Jr. knew what was about to happen when he released the final shot of Rutgers’ Thursday-night shocker, but even after his 35-footer connected as time expired, it was still hard to believe.

Final: Rutgers 70, No. 1 Purdue 68

Yes, that is No. 1 Purdue, as in, No. 1 in all of Division I college basketball. Never before had Rutgers defeated a No. 1 ranked team and never before had Purdue been the No.-1-ranked men’s basketball team in America, and on Thursday in Piscataway, it was Rutgers that played the role of underdog better than Purdue could play the unfamiliar role as the kings of college basketball.

“It felt great,” Harper said of his game-winner. “I said, ‘This is going in. Let’s go home.’ I told these guys, ‘If they score, give me the ball and let’s go home.’ We got a great win. We just got to keep pushing. We’re never too high, never too low.”

Harper became the first person in the history of Division I men’s basketball to score 30 points and hit a buzzer-beater to beat the No. 1 team in the country. The 30 points were a career-high for the Don Bosco Prep alum and he also hauled in 10 rebounds against one of the country’s best rebounding squads.

Rutgers has been on the wrong end of some last-second shots, which head coach Steve Pikiell was quick to point out after Thursday night’s win.

“We have lost games on shots like that,” Pikiell said. “So, it’s about time.”

This season, those shots have been made shots by the opponent – including two game-winning shots within the final two seconds against both Lafayette and UMass – but for Harper, his experience with last-second shots goes back to the end of last season.

Harper took the final shot of Rutgers’s memorable 2020-21 season. Trailing by three, Harper got a three-pointer off from the top of the key that was off the mark and ended the Scarlet Knights’ dreams of a Sweet 16. After escaping the scare vs. Rutgers, Houston went on to reach the Final Four.

“Those games hurt,” Harper said. “That Houston game, that shot haunted me for a while. I thought I got a pretty good look. After the season, I worked on that shot a lot and I promised myself it would never go down like that again. Tonight, I got a shot at redemption, I savored that chance and I took it and ran with it.”

On Thursday night, Harper embraced the opportunity to lead Rutgers to its best win ever in its home building. During the first half, Harper made his first five shots, including four from three-point range, and also hit all three of his free throws.

He went cold during the second half, but he saved a major flurry for the final seven minutes. Harper made back-to-back baskets as part of a 6-0 run to chop Purdue’s lead from 57-47 to 57-53 and later came up with a crucial offensive rebound and subsequent free throws to pull Rutgers within 63-59 with 4:09 to play.

Purdue’s spectacular sophomore Jaden Ivey came up with a huge steal and windmill dunk to stretch Purdue’s lead back to 65-59 before Rutgers guard Caleb McConnell hit a pair of free throws and a turnaround jumper in the lane to draw the Scarlet Knights within two, 65-63.

Harper then did it with his vision, finding second-year freshman Mawot Mag cutting along the baseline for a thunderous two-hand slam that got the crowd to its loudest level of the night to that point.

An offensive foul on Purdue big man Trevion Williams gave Rutgers the ball back, but Harper and McConnell were not on the same page on the other end as Harper fired a bounce pass out of bounds when he expected McConnell – who remained in the corner – to cut along the baseline.

Out of a timeout, Rutgers trapped Ivey in the corner near the Rutgers bench and the sophomore dragged his pivot foot for a turnover, giving Rutgers the ball back with 20 seconds.

After Rutgers took its last timeout, Harper got the ball, went to work across the lane and drilled a mid-range jumper to give Rutgers a 67-66 lead – its first advantage on the scoreboard since 44-41 early in the second half.

Purdue, however, responded like the No. 1 team in the country: by going to its best weapon. Williams posted up against Cliff Omoruyi and powered to the rim for a go-ahead layup with 3.4 seconds left.

Without any timeouts, Harper took the inbound pass from Mag, dribbled up the floor, split two defenders around midcourt and let his shot got off his right foot. The shot rattled home, Harper leapt in the air and flung his headband toward the throng of students that were already charging toward the floor to celebrate.

“It was like a Euro-step shot,” Harper said. “A million things were going through my mind. I had to get a good look up. They kind of stopped playing for a second because I think they didn’t want to foul me. That’s just a crazy shot that goes in. I’m sure they are telling each other they’ve got to live with that one. Not much they can do there."

What made Harper’s heroics so exhilarating from the Rutgers perspective is that the Scarlet Knights have spent most of the first month of the season slowly letting slip away so much of the good will the program had built up over the last two seasons.

After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991 and winning its first tournament game since 1983 last March, Rutgers came back this fall will high expectations – not just from college basketball’s punditry but explicitly high expectations from coach Steve Pikiell and his players.

“When I say I like my team, that’s really how I feel,” Pikiell said. “I felt like that the whole time and these guys know it. We’re a couple of three-point bombs away from being where we want to be. We have hit a lot of obstacles, but these kids work their tail off. That’s why we sell this place out: because of the work that they’ve done.

“When I say my team is good, they are pretty good and you saw it tonight.”

Those expectations set the stage for head-scratching losses to DePaul and UMass on the road and an absolute jaw-dropping loss to Lafayette at home, where Rutgers was 18-1 in 2019-20.

Rutgers appeared to right the ship with a 74-64 home win over Clemson, but another humbling loss – this time a 35-point drubbing at Illinois – last Friday flung the Scarlet Knights right back to another season crossroads. Without a narrative-shifting win over either Purdue on Thursday or Seton Hall on Sunday, Rutgers would be staring at an insurmountable hill to climb in order to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

“We knew we could play with anybody in the country, it was just a matter of going out and doing it,” Harper said. “I told the guys before the game, we have been talking and rarely have been following through on anything we have been saying, so tonight, pregame, I kept it short. I said, ‘Anybody got anything to say? Alright, let’s go do it.’”

Coming off a humbling, 86-51 loss at Illinois, Rutgers started strong and hit its first-half zenith with a 12-0 run that flipped a seven-point deficit into a 29-24 lead with 5:32 to go in the first half.

Harper Jr. keyed the run with eight of the 12 points, including two of his four made three-pointers during the first half. After Purdue halted the run out of a timeout, Harper answered with a four-point play for his fifth consecutive made shot to open the game – four of which came from beyond the arc.

With Roselle Catholic alum and 6-foot-11 big man Cliff Omoruyi saddled with two fouls, Purdue pounded the paint over the final 3:55, but Rutgers still managed to make it to the break with a 36-35 lead.

Omoruyi played a heroic game for Rutgers, finishing with 11 points, three rebounds and three steals while battling Williams and 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey throughout his 29 minutes of work.

With 6:37 left, Edey’s arm appeared to twist Omoruyi’s neck and the Rutgers center collapsed to the ground in pain. He had to be helped off the floor and back to the trainer’s room with his team trailing by six points.

“I heard my neck crack and I was really worried,” Omoruyi said. “I can crack my neck sometimes, but I never felt it like that before and it was very painful when I was walking off the court. I went back into the training room and I did some stretched and it felt a lot better.”

To the delight of the crowd, Omoruyi emerged from the locker room and checked back in with 4:09 left and Rutgers still trailing by just six points.

“It kind of boosted the energy up,” Omoruyi said. “It reminded me of when I came to visit (as a high-school player) and the crowd was all chanting ‘We want Cliff.’ It definitely makes you want to play harder.”

Mag also stepped up for Rutgers by scoring 12 points in his first career start. Geo Baker was unable to attend because of a bout with the flu that began earlier on Thursday, according to Pikiell, making Baker the seventh Rutgers player to experience flu-like symptoms between Friday’s loss at Illinois and Thursday’s game.

With a chance to start the game, Mag scored seven points during a 12-9 Rutgers run to open the game.

McConnell also delivered 12 points to go with five rebounds, five assists and two steals, while Paul Mulcahy dished out eight assists.

After celebrating the program’s biggest regular-season ever – or at least since upending No. 2 UCLA in 1981 – Rutgers will refocus ahead of a Sunday showdown against Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in Newark.

The No. 23 ranked Pirates picked up a big home win of their own on Thursday night by knocking off No. 7 Texas, 64-60, to improve to 8-1.

The two in-state rivals did not meet last season and two years ago, Rutgers handled Seton Hall, 68-48, in Piscataway.

“We’re looking forward to Sunday,” Harper said. “It’s the best rivalry in New Jersey and we’re going to get after it.”

 

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