LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Rutgers found out shortly before its game against Nebraska that it would be without team leader Geo Baker. The Scarlet Knights didn't miss a beat.
Caleb McConnell started in Baker's place, made all eight of his shots from the field and scored a season-high 20 points to lead Rutgers past the Cornhuskers 79-62 on Friday night for its fifth straight win.
“Losing one of our leaders due to an injury, I just knew I had to step up big coming into this game,” McConnell said. “I try to control my team taking on his role. Just controlling the pace of the game and controlling my team and making sure our team gets a good shot.”
Baker, the Scarlet Knights' No. 2 scorer and a veteran presence on a young team, is out indefinitely with a left thumb injury sustained in practice. McConnell, who typically starts when the Knights go with a four-guard lineup, took Baker's spot at the point as Rutgers opened with three guards, a forward and center.
“I found out at the last minute that Geo wasn't going to play,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “Caleb stepped up, Paul Mulcahy, Jacob Young, they all stepped up. You have to do a little bit more. Hard to replace a guy. I feel bad for Geo. He’s worked tremendously hard and is having a great season. These are the obstacles you have to have go through on the journey of a season.”
McConnell finished with season highs for points, matched his career high with five assists and played 34 minutes, his most ever.
The Knights (11-3, 2-1) won for the first time in five games in Lincoln, and the 17-point margin was their largest in a road game since a 62-39 win over Pittsburgh in January 2012. It was their win away from home this season.
"Always good to win on the road, especially in the best league in the country,” McConnell said.
The 6-foot-11, 255-pound Myles Johnson matched career highs with 18 points and 14 rebounds, Young had 16 points, and Ron Harper Jr. added 11 points and a career-high tying 10 rebounds.
Haanif Cheatham had 16 points to lead Nebraska (6-8, 1-2), which shot 32 percent. Cam Mack had 11 points.
Rutgers used an 18-1 run in the middle of the first half to turn a 15-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Huskers went nearly eight minutes without a field goal — Dachon Burke hit the side of the backboard with an attempt — before reeling off seven straight points to get within four points.
The Knights outscored the Huskers 13-4 the rest of the half, with McConnell making a jumper just ahead of the buzzer to make it 41-28. The lead grew to 22 points midway through the second half.
Rutgers held a 48-31 rebounding advantage. Its dominance in the paint was best illustrated by a five-shot sequence when Akwasi Yeboah was off with a 3-pointer and Johnson missed three times from under the basket, got his rebound each time and then scored on his fourth chance.
“It's the most physical team we've played to this point,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We talked a lot about that leading into this one and how important it was to keep them out of the paint. Too often we allowed them to get into the paint. We had no chance of getting Johnson off the glass. Just too big and too physical in there.”
Rutgers: The Knights have struggled on the road since joining the Big Ten, so this was a big accomplishment to win without Baker. For all the improvement Rutgers appears to be making, its road play will be the biggest question mark going forward. The Knights have won only five Big Ten road games in five-plus seasons.
Nebraska: No one expects much of the Huskers in coach Hoiberg's first season, not with 14 new players in the program. There could be a lot more nights like this now that the conference grind has started. The Huskers miss shots in bunches and struggle to rebound against bigger and physical teams.
Nebraska's Mack and Rutgers' Yeboah had a scary face-to-face collision going for a loose ball when the Knights' Young batted a rebound into the backcourt late in the first half. Both crumpled to the floor.
Mack walked to the locker room with help from an athletic trainer while rubbing the left side of his head. Yeboah walked to the bench on his own. Both players were back on the floor to start the second half.
Rutgers: Hosts No. 21 Penn State on Tuesday.
Nebraska: Hosts No. 23 Iowa on Tuesday.