Minnesota had the ball with less than 10 seconds left to play, the game suddenly and inexplicably tied, and it seemed the 30-ton weight of a 30-year absence from the NCAA Tournament was too much for Rutgers to handle.
The clock ticked in the single digits and as a pass sailed through the air, two Minnesota players broke free behind the Rutgers defense. If one of them catches him, the Golden Gophers easily convert a winning layup and put it on the short list of the most devastating losses in Rutgers history.
That’s when Jacob Young saved everything.
The game. The season. The tournament offer.
“I just knew there was no way I could let that step get behind me,” Young said, a smile, as always, on his face. “I knew I had to come back or I had to steal it.”
To be fair, Young had spent the better part of the previous two hours saving the day with the best performance of the season, the defensive star who turned off Minnesota star Marcus and the offensive catalyst with 23 points and seven assists.
This was pure courage, pure effort, pure instinct. Young jumped in front of that Minnesota pass to avoid a disaster, and while Rutgers needed an extra five minutes, is there anything easy? – They held out for a 77-70 victory that will be remembered as the one that finally delivered them to the big dance.
“I know our fans have waited a long time for this,” Young said after a water-sprayed locker room celebration, “but we scored that ticket.”
This game just had to feel like 30 years to the Rutgers fanbase. The Scarlet Knights last entered the tournament in 1991, and although they lost their first-round game to Arizona that year, it was two NCAA offers in three seasons. And later …
Naked free throws. Mike Rice. Player defections. The coronavirus. It’s hard to go three decades without doing a 68-ticket tournament, but Rutgers managed to do it with a rare combination of lewd scandals and cosmically bad luck.
This is not an exaggeration: if that drought didn’t end is year, with is team, it’s fair to wonder if he ever would. And then, when Minnesota erased a 14-point deficit in the second half to tie the game, it was hard not to expect the worst.
“I’m sure it wears out,” head coach Steve Pikiell said of the drought. “But I keep telling them to play for each other. They weren’t even born 30 years ago. They needed to do it for Rutgers, they had to do it for themselves, and I’m proud they did it. “
So now all attention will quickly turn to what comes next. First, it will be a trip back to Indianapolis, where last season ended abruptly with players suspended from the court when the Big Ten Tournament was canceled. Then, it will be the excitement of Selection Sunday and the anticipation of the joy of March.
But first, if you are a fan of Rutgers, you should take the rest of this weekend to appreciate the great individual effort that this accomplished.
Young wished this team a victory. Not only did he make that steal to save everything in the closing seconds, but he scored the first overtime basket and assisted in the next two, a layup by Myles Johnson and a dunk by Caleb McConnell, to regain control of the game when it appeared. that Minnesota had all the momentum.
“He is a winner. He’s a competitor, ”said teammate Geo Baker, who missed one of his patented jumpers at the end of regulation time. “We were unfazed, and JY made plays in that stretch. It was great for us. “
This hasn’t always been an easy road for Young, who transferred to Rutgers in 2018 after two seasons in Texas. Baker is the star and face of the show. Ron Harper Jr. is the leading scorer and featured artist. The team, at times, looked better when Young came off the bench and the ball was out of his hands.
He never complained, and when the entire Pikiell squad seemed to lose confidence with the goal so close, Young contributed a lot. He was never fazed, and when the Rutgers fanbase was on the brink of anger and tears, Young responded with his ever-present smile.
“Not everything is going to be perfect. We know, ”Young said. “We don’t feel like we have a weight on our shoulders. We just felt like we had to come here and play. We trust each other that we can win basketball games. “
Rutgers won a big one Saturday afternoon, guaranteeing that it will have bigger ones in the coming weeks. You wonder: now that the pressure to get to the tournament is gone, will the Scarlet Knights loosen up and play like they have nothing to lose?
We’ll find out soon. Rutgers is going to the NCAA Tournament, finally, and a grateful fanbase knows who to thank for that.
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Steve Politi can be reached at [email protected].