After scoring 4 points in the first half, Rutgers point guard Paul Mulcahy knocked down a three-pointer on the first offensive possession of the second half. It gave the Scarlet Knights a 13 point lead on the road against No. 1 Purdue. Of course, the Boilermakers responded strong and outscored RU 28-15 to tie the game at 52-52 with just under six minutes left in the game.
While Mulcahy did dish out three assists from his last basket to this point in the game, Purdue had taken Rutgers out of their offense. The game was in the balance and the Scarlet Knights were in danger of letting a third straight road game against high majors slip away.
In the exact moment, Mulcahy took matters into his own hands and led Rutgers to victory. The veteran point guard used his experience and his strengths to his advantage.
He scored nine points in over three minutes before finding Cam Spencer on a kickout with just seconds remaining for the game winning three-pointer.
A key adjustment was Rutgers changing course and having Cliff Omoruyi hand off the basketball to Mulcahy near the top of the arc. It allowed Mulcahy to get downhill towards the basket or back his defender down without needing to worry about entry passes. It also caused Zach Edey to back up at times and it created space in the paint.
Coming out of a timeout and the game tied with 5:37 on the game clock, Mulcahy took what the defense gave him. Cliff handed it to him and Mulcahy took a mid-range jumper in the paint to start to get the lead back. He showed awareness and experience by not forcing the drive to the rim.
With the game tied again at 55-55 and under four minutes to play, Mulcahy ran off of a Aundre Hyatt screen and took another handoff from Omoruyi. He did get to rim but missed his initial shot. Mulcahy got the offensive rebound and scored two huge second chance points. Purdue big man Zach Edey was right there but Mulcahy’s moxie outdid him for the rebound. He drew the foul in the process and calmly completed the and-1 opportunity after the last media timeout.
After Fletcher Loyer missed two free throws, Mulcahy sense the game turning and it took the whole way to the rim for a huge basket. It gave Rutgers a 60-55 lead with 3:09 to play. Brandon Newman answered with a tough two-pointer for the Boilermakers. However, Mulcahy again drove to the basket, misses his first shot, grabbed the offensive rebound and scored to push the lead back to five points with 2:21 remaining.
He tried again on the next possession and executed a perfect up and under move to get a mid-range shot off but Edey was there to block it away. However, Rutgers failed to get a shot off before the shot clock expired.
Purdue took control with a 7-0 run that culminated with Loyer’s three-pointer with 30 seconds left that put them ahead 64-62. Mulcahy had dropped down to trap Edey and was late getting back to defend the arc. Even so, the captain regrouped himself and his team.
After the timeout called by Purdue head coach Matt Painter, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell drew up a play for Cam Spencer. The ball was once again in Mulcahy’s hands, but this time, he was able to drive and kick it out to Spencer, who pumped fake and then drilled the game winning three from behind the top of the key.
“Credit to my teammates. Coach drew up a great play,” explained Spencer in the postgame. “With how they played it, we kind of had to go to something else but Paul was able to get into the lane and find me. Luckily the shot went in but credit to Paul for being able to find me there.
Mulcahy was unprompted in responding, “He told us he was making the shot, so he knew what he was doing.”
The floor general was humble after the game, quick to praise his teammates. When asked about taking over down the stretch, he made it clear it was a team effort.
“The last five minutes, probably four guys on the court touched the ball every possession,” explained Mulcahy. “We share the ball. We play hard. (The ball) found me, but I think the ball touched everybody. I know it touched Cliff every possession too so I appreciate it.”
Mulcahy added, “The ball found me but it took the whole team for that to happen.”
This Rutgers team has been incredibly unselfish so far this season. Having a pass first point guard with a team first attitude like Mulcahy to stir the drink is a key factor. In the game before this one, Rutgers dished out 30 assists on 34 made field goals. It was the most assists in a game for the program in 30 years.
“He’s been terrific. He’s had a terrific career, quite honestly,” Pikiell stated in the postgame. “And then he’s another kid, he’s in grad school right now. Graduated early. He’s a leader. Even down the stretch he wanted the ball. He makes good decisions. He has six assists and zero turnovers in this kind of environment with eight rebounds and four steals, so he did everything. He’s a stat stuffer anyways, and he’s a winner and he showed all those things tonight.”
Last season, when Mulcahy struggled to adjust to being the primary point guard early on, Rutgers struggled. When he developed into the role and began to thrive, Rutgers flourished.
When the Scarlet Knights were 11-8 and in danger of losing late at last place Nebraska, it was Mulcahy who had the game winning basket on a putback following an offensive rebound. The next game, he led RU back from a 24 point deficit with a career high 31 points and 7 assists before they lost by 1 at the buzzer. However, his breakout game was the jumping off point to Rutgers making a historical run that turned the season around.
Rutgers became the first unranked team in college basketball history to defeat four ranked teams in consecutive games. Mulcahy was a revelation. He averaged 14.5 points, 7.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 0.8 steals and he had a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. He shot 61.1% from the floor, 62.5% from three-point range and made 9 of 10 free throws for 90.0%.
While he was unable to sustain that pace, he did lead the Big Ten assists with 5.3 per game. He became the first Rutgers player to average over 5 assists per game since Brian Ellerbe did it 37 years before.
Despite battling a shoulder injury and missing four games because of it earlier this season, Mulcahy is starting to his stride once again. In his last four games, he is averaging 11.3 points, 5.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.3 steals. During that stretch, Mulcahy is shooting 49% from the floor, 37,5% from three-point range and a perfect 8 of 8 from the foul line.
He is a matchup nightmare for most guards and as he gets healthier, Mulcahy is becoming more assertive once again on offense.
In last night’s win over No. 1 Purdue, Mulcahy delivered a masterclass performance. 16 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 0 turnovers. However, I thought his leadership and inspired play while maintaining his emotions was the most impressive part. Mulcahy has developed into a passionate but clear headed leader, which is exactly what this team needs.
On Monday night, the Bayonne, New Jersey native proved once again that when he is locked in and comfortable, he is at his best. And when Mulcahy is playing his best, so is Rutgers. Their defense is elite and this team is incredibly tough. However, when Mulcahy is orchestrating the offense and playing to his potential, I’m convinced there isn’t a team that Rutgers can’t beat this season. Taking down the No. 1 team in the country in one of the toughest venues in college basketball proved that.
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