July 18, 2018 | ° F

One win away


Junior guard Ricky Shields goes up for a shot in last night´s NIT semifinal win versus Iowa State.

NEW YORK - It took the Rutgers men's basketball team an additional five minutes, but when all was said and done, they boldly proceeded to go where no Scarlet Knight team has gone before.

A postseason championship game.

Once again riding the increasingly hot hand of freshman guard Quincy Douby, the Knights (20-12) outlasted Iowa State in an 84-81 overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden.

The victory sends the Knights to the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament tomorrow night.

"It was amazing," Gary Waters said of the entire experience. "To feel it when people are in a battle-game, where every possession means something...this is what the NIT used to be about."

Douby was the answer for the Knights at every key moment of the game period. He was especially clutch in the extra session, scoring five of the Knights seven points. During the five-minute frame to finish with 35.

"I didn't expect myself to have this kind of game," Douby said. "But I knew I was going to play well because the first game we played [here] against Virginia Tech, I played horrible and that stuck in my head. That pushed me to practice harder."

The practice paid huge dividends, as the freshman sniper's offensive outburst marked the largest output by a freshman in the history of the Rutgers men's basketball program.

In addition to his hot finish, Douby kicked the game off in similar fashion. He connected on four three-pointers in the first eight minutes, staking the Knights to an early 25-16 advantage.

Junior guard Ricky Shields said that he couldn't have felt better about his backcourtmate's exploits.

"I'm so proud of this man," Shields said. "To see him perform like this on this stage, that's beautiful.

"I wasn't really hitting tonight, so when I saw him hit those first four threes, I was thinking that I gave him my bag of tricks."

Douby's hot play, coupled with stellar performances on both ends of the court, gave the Knights a 40-30 lead at halftime.

The Knights outscored the Cyclones, 20-10, on points off of turnovers in the first half and led ISU in virtually every other hustle statistic - including steals (6-4), second-chance points (8-2) and offensive rebounds (6-3).

One of the main contributors to those statistics was a man whose performance was perhaps overshadowed by Douby's offensive display. Senior forward Sean Axani played what was most likely the greatest game of his Knight career.

Axani ripped down 17 rebounds - eight of which were on the offensive glass. He narrowly missed a double-double, finishing with eight points in addition to three blocks.

Waters had nothing but praise for his team captain.

"I almost didn't mention Sean Axani, but he got 17 rebounds," Waters said. "Think about that. He has something to tell his children about 20 years from now."

However, the game took a turn for the worse in the second half. That was when the Cyclones' resident freshman sensation, Curtis Stinson, took over.

After being limited to three points in the first half - on only three field goal attempts - the Cyclone guard exploded in the second stanza.

Stinson scored 27 of the Cyclones 47 points in that half, 12 of which came from the free-throw line.

At times, he appeared to be single-handedly carrying the Cyclones. That fact didn't surprise Douby, who played against Stinson in prep school.

"He's just a tough New York City kid," Douby said. "I knew it was going to be a battle ...he's a New York City kid, and he just gets the job done."

Stinson keyed an 11-2 run to open the second half, scoring five points and dishing out an assist to Jared Homan that brought the Cyclones within one, 42-41.

Waters attributed the Cyclones' early-half success to sloppy play by the Knights, which included three turnovers and an airball from guard Marquis Webb on their first four possessions.

And when Homan hit a transition lay-up to give the Cyclones their first lead since an early 6-5 advantage, it epitomized what Waters felt was the strongest quality of the Cyclones squad.

"We didn't give [up the lead], they took it," Waters said. "We were fighting to keep that thing, and they kept playing hard."

From the end of that spurt by the Cyclones, both teams scrapped for the lead that would give them the opener separation they needed to seal the victory. However, neither was able to climb more than three points ahead.

But with 2:34 left in regulation, it was Douby again who had the Knight faithful dreaming championship dreams. He hit a three at the top of the key that kicked off in 8-0 Knight run and left the team 47 seconds away from the championship game.

However, it was once again missed free throws that plagued the Knights down the stretch, as they have in many other tight games this season.

Waters wasn't pleased with the teams performance at the charity stripe, and felt that the Knights let the opportunity to win in regulation slip away because of it.

However, according to Shields, it was ultimately Waters collectiveness on the sidelines between the end of the second half and the commencement of overtime that settled the Knights nerves.

"Coach has so much composure," Shields said. "When you see that as a player it just gives you more confidence."

The victory marked the first by a Waters-led Knight squad in a professional arena, following the nine such losses.

It was the latest of those losses that really stung the Knights, and provided the fuel that propelled the team to victory.

"All of us, as a whole team, prepared real hard for this game," Douby said. "We didn't want to come in here and lose again."

The preparation was obvious to Waters, who said he knew the players would be ready because of something the team did after their stumble to the finish line.

"They made a commitment as soon as the regular season ended," Waters said. "They made a commitment to come back to Madison Square Garden."

Coming back to the Garden is now an afterthought. The Knights will now have a chance to do what no Knight team has done before - win a postseason tournament.

That, Shields said, is something the entire program can hang their collective hats on.

"It was just incredible," Shields said. "To have a chance to win a national championship just shows the strides we have made and it shows the hard work [we have put in].

"It is a building block for us to move on to the next big stage."

KNIGHT NOTE: The 20-win season marks the first a Knight team has reached that plateau since the 1982-83 season. "Forget about that," Waters said. "We have to start to do that on a regular basis.

Tom Gottlieb

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