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PISCATAWAY — Ron Harper Jr. pulled up from darn near Dunellen, about 28 feet from the bucket, and drilled a straightaway 3-pointer that sent 6,500 Rutgers basketball fans into an all-out frenzy.
Clemson coach Brad Brownell called a timeout and Harper, normally one of the Scarlet Knights’ more stoic players, waved his arms to the crowd, imploring everyone to keep the pedal floored.
Harper certainly did his part Tuesday, posting 23 points and eight rebounds to lead Rutgers to a desperately needed 74-64 triumph in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In this rematch of last March’s NCAA Tournament encounter, the Scarlet Knights (4-3) snapped a three-game losing streak and maintained their hold over Clemson (5-3).
“This win tells me that this team has a bunch of fighters on it,” he said. “Preparing for the game we could have hung our heads and cried about the last three games, but we put our big-boy pants on.”
And they did it without postgrad guard Geo Baker, who missed a second straight contest with a hamstring injury.
Harper transferred the burden onto his shoulders, and the senior wing performed like an All-Big Ten player should. He shot 8-of-13 from the field, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, and added two assists, a block and a steal.
“When Ron’s in attack mode, he’s a hell of a player,” junior guard Paul Mulcahy said. “Obviously the threes were falling, but he attacked the basket better than he has all year. When he’s doing that, it helps us a ton.”
Harper's sense of desperation, matched by the crowd, met the magnitude of the moment.
1. McConnell loves Clemson
After the NCAA Tournament win over Clemson, Rutgers’ players accorded Caleb McConnell the high honor of “advancing” the Scarlet Knights’ name in the bracket. McConnell was awesome that night, tallying 13 points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
On Monday, he rewatched the game in full after averaging just 3.3 points while shooting 21 percent over the season's first six games.
"I feel like that kind of helped a lot today with confidence," he said.
McConnell, who always brings it on defense, hit his first two shots Tuesday and was off to the races.
"That was just a deep breath for me," he said. "My eyes went wide and I feel like that's what really carried me through this game."
McConnell ended up with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting, grabbed six rebounds and handed out two assists. His defense pestered Clemson guards Nick Honor and Al-Amir Dawes. And he drew eight fouls, a phenomenal number.
“The basketball gods definitely rewarded Caleb today,” Harper said. “Even before the game he was at the APC (Rutgers’ practice gym) shooting by himself with nobody to rebound for him. That’s Caleb’s character. He does everything on the defensive end, he rebounds, he cuts hard, so it was great to see him put a full game together, knowing how hard he works.”
Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell echoed that sentiment.
“Caleb and I have a great relationship; I never worried about his shooting," Pikiell said. "A lot is made of the ball going in the basket, I understand that, but he's a good shooter and a good player and he's made a ton of big shots for us. Sometimes you're a hitter and you're in like a bad groove, and all sudden you get five-for-five. I have a ton of faith in him. The way he defends you know, he helps us in so many other ways. It was nice it was nice to see it go in for him.”
2. Defense better
Clemson entered shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range, second-best in the nation, and shot 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. After getting torched from deep in Saturday’s meltdown at UMass, Rutgers did a good job communicating and closing out.
"Give Rutgers credit," Brownell said. "I thought their size and physicality really bothered us on both ends."
Rutgers also didn’t foul any 3-point shooters and committed just 16 fouls on the night.
"I thought we were locked in," Pikiell said. "Our guys are figuring it out a little bit."
3. Tremendous crowd
With a three-game losing streak and a 9 p.m. tip, you wondered how Rutgers fans would react. Wonder no longer: They shook the building for two hours. The student section was packed and made themselves known to the officiating crew. There is no question the crowd willed the team out of its rut.
“I loved that energy so much,” Harper said. “They made a big difference. They came out for a 9 p.m. game on a Tuesday and that says a lot about them.”
Worth noting: A couple of highly regarded Gill St. Bernard’s forwards, Mackenzie Mgbako (Class of 2023) and Naas Cunningham (Class of 2024), sat behind Rutgers’ bench. Pikiell has a strong relationship with Gill coach Mergin Sina and successfully recruited Mulcahy from the Somerset County powerhouse.
4. Jalen Miller sighting
The freshman guard finally made his debut. Rutgers could have used the defensive specialist at UMass, but his arrival was better late than never. He logged six solid minutes on the defensive end, stayed in front of his man, shot 1-for-3 and, tellingly, was on the floor at the end as Rutgers protected the lead.
"Awesome," Pikiell said. "There was some talk of him redshirting, but to his credit he came in and said ‘coach, I can help.’ It was him, every day, ‘coach I know I can help.' Especially now with Geo out for who knows how long. He came in and gave us a great lift. He can really pressure the ball and do some good things."
When Miller's name came up in the postgame press conference, the three Rutgers players at the dais burst into applause.
“Jalen had such a great impact on the game,” Harper said. “When coach Pikiell told him is role — fight over screens and pick guys up 94 feet — he said, ‘I got you, coach.' That shows a lot of character. When you see a guy coming in for the first time with those guts, it motivates the rest of the team.”
5. Turning point?
This was a quality win and reinforces the belief that although Rutgers lost some mainstays in the offseason, this team still has the talent to compete at a high level.
"Tonight we showed that we're still here," McConnell said. "We just needed to get our groove back a little bit."
To beat Clemson without Baker should provide a confidence boost heading into a brutal stretch: at Illinois Friday, home against second-ranked Purdue Dec. 9 and at rival and 25th-ranked Seton Hall Dec. 12. Those are tougher games than this, but this is a start toward righting the ship.
"It was a rough start, but around the country a lot of teams are trying to figure it out," Mulcahy said. "Mentally we're in a really good spot. We've got a big game coming up and we'll be ready."
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Rutgers basketball: Ron Harper Jr. leads much-needed win over Clemson