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It was defense. Of course it was defense. These were Steve Pikiell’s Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
During the last two years, the winning was all about stopping the other team from scoring, cutting off the paint and limiting driving lanes. Defense was how Rutgers got to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years, and it was how they won Friday, too.
In an ugly first half, defense allowed the Scarlet Knights to stay close despite poor shooting and even worse ball-handling. And down the stretch, defense saved the game after a 11-point lead had disappeared.
Defense led the 10th-seeded Scarlet Knights to their first tournament victory in 38 years, a gritty 60-56 win over No. 7 seed Clemson in Indianapolis. Rutgers (16-11) will face No. 2 seed Houston on Sunday in a Midwest Region second-round game.
Ron Baker’s 3-pointer with 3:49 left snapped a 55-all tie, and Clemson (16-8) managed just one point the rest of the way. The Tigers had a chance to tie in the final seconds, but Ron Harper Jr. beat Aamir Simms to the spot, forcing a travel. On the other end, Baker got to a loose ball for a layup; the senior scored Rutgers’ final five points.
Baker, Caleb McConnell and Jacob Young each scored 13 points for Rutgers and Myles Johnson had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Simms had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Clemson, which shot just 35 percent from the field and went to the free-throw line only nine times.
Rutgers seemed to take over midway through the second half, ripping off a 15-4 run to go up 11 after a McConnell 3-pointer. Young led the spurt, scoring five points and creating easy opportunities by pushing pace and creating offense for others.
The Scarlet Knights started the second half on fire, making 10 of their first 17 shots, and sinking four of their first eight 3-point attempts.
Clemson answered with 10 straight points to get within one with 5:31 left. Rutgers, meanwhile, went cold, coming up empty on five consecutive offensive trips, setting up the dramatic finish.
Fittingly, Baker — the senior who has keyed the team’s turnaround — scored Rutgers’ first NCAA Tournament points in 30 years with a 3-pointer. It was one of the very few offensive highlights for either team in the opening 20 minutes.
Neither team shot better than 37 percent from the field. There were more combined turnovers (15) than assists (12) and 6-for-24 shooting from 3-point range altogether. That matched the pregame expectations for two teams that prefer to play slowly and pride themselves on defense.
Rutgers struggled to hold onto the ball, committing 10 turnovers, one below its season average. The largest lead until the closing seconds for either team was three — held by Clemson at halftime. Rutgers had a chance to go ahead, but Johnson missed twice in close and Clyde Trapp scored on a driving layup at the horn.
Harper was active, scoring a team-best eight points, which included a huge dunk, but he also missed five of his eight shot attempts. Al-Amir Dawes and Simms each had eight for Clemson, which did its most damage in transition in the opening half, scoring 13 of its 26 points before the break.
The second half started with some actual offensive flow. Rutgers hit two of its first 3-point attempts, both by Paul Mulcahy, and Trapp picked up where he left off by throwing down a dunk, hitting a 3-pointer and sinking a medium-range jumpshot.
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