Rutgers all but clinches NCAA Tournament berth with gutty win

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It’s now all but a formality that Rutgers is going to the NCAA Tournament. Jacob Young ensured it.

The senior guard refused to let the Scarlet Knights blow this opportunity. He wouldn’t allow an extended losing streak to ruin a chance at March Madness.

Young’s steal late in regulation and his dynamic performance in overtime keyed a 77-70 victory over flatlining Minnesota in Minneapolis, a win which should end the team’s 30-year NCAA tournament drought. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped away last year’s tournament after those Scarlet Knights’ strong season.

“It’s just a blessing,” Young said of what should be the team’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1991. “We’re just doing it [for] our fans. I know you’ve been waiting a long time for this. We punched that ticket.”

Young led the way with 23 points, seven assists, four steals and terrific defense on Marcus Carr, the Minnesota star who was held to seven points on 1-of-13 shooting. Myles Johnson added nine points and 15 rebounds for Rutgers and Geo Baker had 12 points.

Young, a transfer from Texas, iced it in the extra session with a three-point play, extending a three-point lead to six with 40.9 seconds left. He had begun overtime by giving Rutgers the lead, then set up teammates Johnson and Caleb McConnell for consecutive easy baskets. But it was Young’s steal with 15 seconds left in regulation that was the biggest play of this Rutgers season.

With the score tied 63-63 and 15 seconds left in the second half, Minnesota’s Carr was streaking upcourt with nobody near him after a defensive rebound by Eric Curry. But Curry’s outlet pass near midcourt was picked off by the omnipresent Young. While the Scarlet Knights’ Baker missed the potential game-winning shot at the buzzer, Rutgers was still alive after blowing a 14-point, second-half lead.

“That’s the extra effort we always talk about,” Young said.

Coach Steve Pikiell reminded his players of the regular season finale last March, when they beat Purdue on the road in overtime that seemed to seal a bid at the time. Rutgers also had blown a late lead in regulation that day, only to rally in the extra session.

“This is just like last year,” Pikiell said he told his players. “We won that and we’re going to have to do it again.”

The Scarlet Knights responded by scoring the first six points of overtime. Minnesota twice got within three, but each time, Rutgers (14-10, 10-10 Big Ten) responded to send the Golden Gophers (13-14, 6-14) to their seventh straight loss.

It wasn’t easy, which wasn’t really a surprise. Rutgers doesn’t do easy. The second half of this season has been a slog, with three losses in four games entering Saturday.

But though the Scarlet Knights bent plenty, they didn’t break. That’s all that matters. An NCAA Tournament bid 30 years in the making beckons. Up next is the Big Ten tournament. But this win all but ensures a stress-free Selection Sunday for Rutgers no matter what happens next week in Indianapolis.

“We did it,” said Baker, the longest-tenured member of the program. “It feels like a weight lifted.”

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