Going into Sunday's second-round matchup against Houston, Rutgers looked for the program's third appearance in the Sweet Sixteen and first since 1979. The road to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament would be challenging as the favorite Cougars would bring a vaunted defense to the table in Indianapolis. Rutgers was able to surprise many with their first-round win over Clemson so all eyes were on the Scarlet Knights.
After leading for most of the second half, Rutgers could not retain the advantage late as they fell to Houston, 63-60, to end their season at the NCAA tournament.
Rutgers once again started slowly as they shot 0-for-6 from the field. Geo Baker's two free throws at the 16:19 mark of the first half put the Scarlet Knights on the board. By the time the game reached the first media timeout, Rutgers had turned the ball over three times as Houston played tougher defense and challenged every shot Rutgers put up.
Midway through the second half, the Cougars led 16-14 as Rutgers withstood Houston's initial surge. Offensive possessions were average at best as both defenses turned up the pressure in the latter part of the first half. Rutgers took their first lead of the game (20-16) as Houston went cold shooting the ball. After starting 7-of-12, Houston finished the half missing 12 of their final 16 shots. The Scarlet Knights, ranked 327th in the nation shooting foul shots, shot 9-of-12 from the line. Rutgers' bench also picked up the slack led by Montez Mathis' 10 points as they held a 30-27 lead at the half.
Rutgers continued to stymie Houston as the Scarlet Knights continued their intense play on defense in the second half. Ron Harper Jr.'s three-point field goal gave the Scarlet Knights their largest lead of the game at 50-40 with 11 minutes remaining in regulation. Fabian White scored the next seven points for Houston as they attempted to make a run to get back in the game. Houston dominated the offensive rebound category, which kept them in the game.
Quentin Grimes' steal and breakaway dunk started a run for Houston, which continued after a three-pointer from Dejon Jarreau, who battled a hip injury throughout the game. After he missed two free throws, Grimes' three-point field goal cut Rutgers' lead to 58-56. Baker's driving lay-up extended the Scarlet Knight lead to four.
Down two, Tramon Mark converted on a three-point play after a putback on an offensive rebound to give Houston a 61-60 lead with 24 seconds left. Baker tried to drive to the basket, but the ball was poked away and turned over. After two Houston free throws, Harper Jr.'s final three-point attempt was missed as Rutgers saw their season end in an instant classic.
"I thought we played our hearts out. This team made history," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "They got through a two-year journey, COVID, never missing a day, never having a pause, all the obstacles they had to fight through. They now become the standard for what we want to be at Rutgers."
Geo Baker led the Scarlet Knights with 14 points. Jacob Young and Ron Harper Jr. struggled, shooting a combined 6-of-20 from the field as Rutgers finishes the season with a 16-12 record.
Tough Loss Felt Throughout Rutgers Locker Room
We've been through so much this year," said Baker after the game. "Honestly, if you weren't inside you really just can't understand it, from isolating to wins to losses to being here in March. A lot of us were trying to go to March Madness last year, we didn't get that chance. For a lot of us it's been two years now. So just leading up to this moment, to lose like that was tough."
Quentin Grimes scored a game-high 22 points, while Dejon Jarreau finished with 17 points and five rebounds in an inspired effort.