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The last time the Rutgers men's basketball team was on the court, its charmed existence was finally challenged. On Tuesday night, the Scarlet Knights returned to the court again amid trying circumstances and got back on their upward trajectory.

With leading scorer Ron Harper Jr. out with an ankle injury, junior Montez Mathis stepped up with a career-high 25 points to help No. 14 Rutgers top Purdue, 81-76, Tuesday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway.

“I like the fact that we’re figuring out ways to win,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “I like the fact that when we need big stops, we’re getting them, and I like the fact that every night, somebody different can step up and do great things.”

According to Pikiell, Harper sprained his ankle at practice and after dressing for shootaround, was not able to play on Tuesday night. That left Rutgers without its leading scorer and the seventh-leading scorer in the country at 23.4 points per game in Harper, as well as starting center and 6-11 freshman Cliff Omoruyi, who missed his second straight game with a right knee injury.

In Harper’s absence, Mathis, senior Geo Baker and sophomore Paul Mulcahy all increased their offensive output, while senior guard Jacob Young contributed 13 points and four assists while gutting through 35 minutes on a sore back that he injured in a hard fall Wednesday at Ohio State.

“We just had the next-man-up mentality,” Mathis said. “We’re a really good team. That’s what we believe. Every guy has the ability to step up and make plays. We all believe in each other and coach believes in everybody on this team and I think we showed all of that today.”

Mathis came out hot from beyond the three-point arc and never cooled off, finishing 5-for-5 from long range during his career-best scoring performance. He picked up two fouls within the first 5:30, which limited his minutes, but Mathis came back with a vengeance to score 16 points in the second half. He also grabbed five rebounds and finished 9-for-15 from the field in total.

“Montez has been as consistent a guy as there is on our team,” Pikiell said. “He comes to practice every day and he’s had really good, consistent practices. Last year, he could be up-and-down at practice. He’s in great shape physically. He’s been through this league and he really improved his jump shot.”

“I was just going out there to win,” Mathis said. “I know we were down a couple guys but I didn’t try to do anything extra. I was just out there trying to win. That’s all.”

Baker also enjoyed his best offensive game of the season, throwing in 19 points to go with six rebounds and four assists. The 15 shot attempts were the most Baker has attempted this season and his 7-for-15 showing was a marked improvement from Wednesday’s 3-for-12 showing in the loss to Ohio State.

“Geo looked like Geo,” Pikiell said of his senior guard, who missed three games with a sprained ankle. “That was a bad ankle sprain and he has been getting closer and closer and I think you saw that tonight and we needed all of it. I couldn’t take him out of the game, really. We’re excited to have him play like that but we’re starting to expect him to play like that because he’s a good player.”

Harper-by-Committee

Combined, Mathis (14.3 points per game) and Baker (7.3) scored 22.4 points above their season average – accounting for all but one of the points vacated by Harper’s absence. Mulcahy also topped his season average (6.1) with 11 points, including 3-for-5 from three-point range.

As a team, Rutgers shot 11-for-21 from beyond three-point range and closed out the win with an impressive 11-for-12 showing at the free-throw line in the second half – part of a 14-for-17 night at the charity stripe.

“Credit to our guys, they have been in the gym,” Pikiell said. “It’s nice having Geo back to give us another guy to shoot it from deep, but Jacob’s been in the gym, Paul has been in the gym, Montez has been in the gym.

“I thought we got really good looks and our guys were in range and in rhythm. Our guys did a really good job finding the open man. They (Purdue) kind of crowd the lane so they give you those opportunities and we took advantage of it. It’s always a good day when they are going in.”

Attendance Counts

Junior center Myles Johnson had a quiet game in the box score (five points, eight rebounds, one block) but the key figures for the 6-11 center were two fouls in 30 minutes played. Wednesday at Ohio State, Johnson fouled out in just 15 minutes and Rutgers came undone after he picked up his fifth foul.

“Myles is really important,” Pikiell said. “He alters shots, he’s a really good defender, he can score down low. (Purdue) is a really tough team down low. We have to keep Myles on the floor and we have to get Cliff back so we can change our lineups and do some different things.”

A Battle from the Bench

Playing without Omoruyi for the second straight game, Rutgers did not lean on Johnson for as many minutes in the front court, with Pikiell entrusting big minutes to senior Mamadou Doucoure and freshmen Dean Reiber, Oskar Palmquist and Mawot Mag. Doucoure played significant time in the loss at Ohio State but Reiber, Palmquist and Mag – the latter of whom returned from a two-game absence due to a sprained ankle on Tuesday – were called upon for key first-half minutes.

The Scarlet Knights fared well with their bench was in the game, beating Purdue by 14 points when Reiber was on the floor, six with Palmquist in the game and five with Doucoure at center.

“You see how deep all these teams in our league are, you see how well coached they are,” Pikiell said. “We just need everybody. One night, we may need a three-point shooter and Oskar gets a little bit more time. Tonight, we needed some more size and some rebounding and Dean got some. Mawot’s a really good defender. But we also need to get everybody back.

“It’s better when you have the whole package, but guys fought through it tonight.”

Where the Game Was Won

For the second straight game, Rutgers struggled to keep an opponent from scoring inside, losing the points-in-the-paint battler, 42-28. Purdue junior Trevion Williams led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds, with 15 of his points coming in the second half.

Rutgers led by as many as 15 points in the first half thanks to seven made threes in its first nine attempts, but Purdue rallied behind sophomore Isaiah Thompson. With 11 points of his 17 points off the bench coming on three three-pointers late in the first half, Thompson sparked a 23-6 Purdue run that turned a 38-23 deficit into a 46-44 lead early in the second.

Purdue pushed its lead up to 53-48 before Rutgers responded with a three from Mulcahy and a steal and layup by Baker. Williams and Mathis traded blows, with Williams scoring on a jump hook and Mathis coming back with five straight points on a three and two foul shots. Freshman Jaden Ivey came back with a driving scoop shot and a pair of free throws to push Purdue back ahead, 59-58 – the Boilermakers’ last lead of the game.

Mulcahy came back with a three from the left wing and Rutgers took the lead for good at 61-59. Mathis’s last basket was a running floater off the glass that gave Rutgers a 75-68 lead with 1:05 left – its largest since the first minute of the second half.

Next Up…

With Harper and Omoruyi trying to heal up enough to play, Young playing through pain, and Mag still working himself into shape, Rutgers will try to regroup in time to host Iowa – the No. 10 team in the Associated Press National Top 25 – Saturday at the RAC at 2 p.m. The Hawkeyes feature strong National Player of the Year candidate in 6-11 center Luka Garza, who is averaging 28.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while shooting 62 percent from the floor heading into Tuesday’s game vs. Northwestern.

Saturday’s tilt against Iowa is part of a rugged stretch of games for Rutgers, which will then travel to play No. 15 Michigan State on Jan. 5 before returning home for a rematch with No. 25 Ohio State on Jan. 9.

“It was really important that we bounced back,” Baker said. “We feel like we let one go at Ohio State. It gave us a chance to watch film and correct our mistakes and get better.”