Two of Rutgers constants a year ago — Geo Baker and a sold-out RAC — were not on their side. The Scarlet Knights’ trademark defense was flat.
Against its first high-level opponent this year, Rutgers was struggling. A double-digit lead was gone. Syracuse was up three.
But like flipping a switch, Steve Pikiell’s team became energized. It held Syracuse without a made field goal over the final 5:40, and Jacob Young and Ron Harper Jr. played the role of closer in place of the injured Baker, leading the 21st-ranked Scarlet Knights past the Orange, 79-69, in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge Tuesday night at the RAC.
Rutgers pulled away after falling behind by three, reeling off 11 consecutive points to go up six with 2:02 left. Young started it, hitting two free throws at the start of the run and adding a driving layup. Harper capped it with a three-point play as part of a monster night. The two were instrumental in the victory, combining for 44 points, 26 from Harper. Montez Mathis chipped in 19 as Rutgers improved to 4-0, all at home a year after winning a program-record 18 home games in Piscataway.
Syracuse, down starters Buddy Boeheim and Bourama Sidibe, didn’t have enough firepower against its first power-conference opponent. Illinois transfer Alan Griffin led the Orange with 20 points and Quincy Guerrier added 14.
It was typical Rutgers early on. Suffocating defense played at a snails pace. It led 20-10 and held Syracuse to 4 of 18 shooting. But a poor close to the half enabled the Orange to creep within four on a strength of a 6-0 run over the final 3:01.
The momentum carried over into the second half for Syracuse, which scored on its first three possessions to pull within a single possession. It even went ahead at the five-minute mark. Rutgers, though, had the final answer.
It remained perfect at home. Even without fans, the RAC is still a home-court advantage.