PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The typically media-friendly and regular interview request Geo Baker skipped out on Rutgers’ post-game press conference. He had no reason to be salty following his best game of the season that has seen him struggle in Big Ten play since breaking his left thumb at the end of December.
However, the team captain and face of the program was getting some extra treatment on his ailing back. While it likely came from the bumps and bruises that come with playing in the Big Ten, his teammate joked it was from carrying the team.
Baker had 25 points, six rebounds and five assists as Rutgers overcame an 18-point deficit and beat Northwestern 77-73 in overtime on Sunday night and improve to 16-0 at home this season.
“I think his back hurt because he carried the team tonight,” sophomore guard Caleb McConnell quipped. “He was on fire. That’s why his back was hurting for sure. He put the team on his back tonight, and give credit to Geo. I feel like Geo’s been struggling…and he finally found himself again.”
Baker had been 10-of-45 shooting since missing three games with a broken left thumb. He made 10 of 17 from the field Sunday night.
Baker hit step-back 3-pointer from the right wing to tie the game at 66-all with 1:15 left in regulation and send the game to overtime, where Rutgers (17-7, 8-5 Big Ten) would take a lead for the first time. Baker had 16 of his points in the second half, and seven in overtime.
It was a highlight performance that is becoming a growing list of big plays for Baker.
“He’s the clutchest player I’ve played with,” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. said. “When Geo has the ball the last five seconds, I know the other coach is nervous.”
Northwestern (6-16, 1-11) jumped to a 10-point lead less than four minutes in. The Wildcats made it 21-7 following a second-chance layup by Pete Nance with 10:52 left in the first half and the lead would balloon to 18 points a couple of minutes later on back-to-back Miller Kopp 3-pointers, assisted by Robbie Beran, forcing Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell to take a timeout with 8:08 left. From there, Rutgers chipped away at the lead, cutting it to 38-27 at the half.
Northwestern would lead by as many as 16 early in the second half. Rutgers wouldn’t cut it to single digits until McConnell hit a jumper from the right wing to make it 63-54 with 6:11 to go and would come storming back from there.
Boo Buie had 19 points and Kopp had 16 points for Northwestern.
Akwasi Yeboah had 13 points and Ron Harper Jr. added 10 for Rutgers. The 18-point comeback is the largest for Rutgers since they came back from 20 down at Pittsburgh to win 71-70 in 1996 to secure the first winning season at Rutgers since 2005-06.
“I was a preschooler in West Paterson dribbling a basketball,” Harper said. “Fifteen years later we’re having the first winning season in a long time, so we’re building something special here.”
Northwestern coach Chris Collins agrees.
Collins had a similar rebuilding task at Northwestern, which had never made an NCAA Tournament and hadn’t had a winning season in the Big Ten in nearly half a century before ending both dry spells in his fourth season with the team.
Rutgers is hoping to make the Big Dance for the first time since 1990-91.
“Now they’re getting a lot of confidence,” Collins said. “It’s kind of what I sensed it with us when we did our build to get to the Tournament. The difference between hoping you’re going to win and believing you’re going to win and you see that in their kids eyes, especially at home.”
Rutgers’ Jacob Young returned after serving a one-game suspension after a driving while intoxicated. Young averages 8.5 points per game. He had two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Northwestern was 11-of-23 from beyond the arc, well above the season average of 32%. Meantime, Rutgers was 4 of 20 from 3-point range, missing its first 10 3-point shots before Baker hit one about three minutes into the second half.
Northwestern: The Wildcats, who have lost seven in a row and 12 of their last 13, find themselves firmly at the bottom of the Big Ten.
Rutgers: After being picked to finish 12th in the 14-team Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights are hoping their dream season will end with their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. However, their only road win of the season is at Nebraska. Rutgers could use a signature road win to boost its NCAA Tournament resume.
Northwestern: Host Michigan on Wednesday.
Rutgers: At Ohio State Wednesday.