Miller spearheads RU’s bounce-back win
Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice spent the majority of the Scarlet Knights’ contest last night against Monmouth as their cheerleader.
He clapped through their turnovers. He withheld grimaces during rough defensive sets. And he stayed calm through a 12-minute stretch of only nine points.
The support paid off as the Knights ran away from the Hawks in the second half of an 81-66 win at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
“It’s not me against them — it’s us,” Rice said. “I have to look at what I’m doing and make some adjustments, as well.”
The resounding win came on the heels of consecutive last-minute losses, the last of which Rice admitted to having a lack of connection with his roster.
Rice and the Knights (5-5) were on the same page at the RAC, where Rutgers put together a 51-39 second-half advantage over the Hawks (2-9) for its first win since Nov. 28.
The driving force was junior wing Dane Miller.
Miller put together his most complete performance of the season, leading the Knights on both ends of the court. He produced a put-back dunk on one possession and followed it with a blocked shot on defense.
He dunked on an alley oop. He dunked on a pass and transition. And he did so nearly at will. But his low-post blocks were as authoritative.
“When he does that, we’re going to be a very hard team to beat,” said freshman guard Eli Carter. “That’s a gift, what he does.”
The Rochester, N.Y., native finished the contest with 13 points, 11 rebounds and seven rejections.
“I had a phone conversation with my grandmother today,” Miller said. “She told me to play hard and just keep playing. So from here on out I decided to play hard, and it clicked.”
Miller said following Rutgers’ tough two-game stretch, the entire team needed to become leaders. He did not mind taking the reins last night, when he and Carter willed the Knights to a victory.
Carter led Rutgers with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting, showing the scoring touch that attracted Rice during the spring recruiting season.
The outburst was a career high for Carter.
“It got me in a rhythm, but it gave our team a little bit of intensity,” Carter said. “We started pressuring the ball, playing harder, getting after it on defense and just playing basketball.”
Carter and the Knights offense matched its first-half output in nearly six minutes’ less time. Prior to Rutgers’ 51-point second half, it scored only 137 points in its last five halves.
The Knights’ moving parts were part of the reason, with versatile freshmen Kadeem Jack and Malick Kone sidelined. Rice returned to a three-guard starting lineup with Carter, freshman Myles Mack and sophomore Mike Poole.
Miller began at the four position while sophomore Gilvdyas Biruta started at center in place of junior Austin Johnson. The shake-up provided enough offensive luster for at least one game.
“I made them uncomfortable,” Rice said of the team’s practices following two losses. “And I threw different things at them. They responded. … It was a good weekend to get things out and toughen that team up.”
The guards’ production masked the frontcourt’s modest outing. Freshman Jerome Seagears responded to the demotion with 12 points and a 55-percent shooting clip from the field.
But after coming off the bench, Johnson fouled out without scoring a point. Freshmen Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall continue to be works in progress whose output does not necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
And without Jack or Kone, Biruta remains the only consistent frontcourt scoring threat. But with three guards and a wing on the court, it will not be the focus.
“For us to be nine games in and for Coach Rice and the coaching staff to feel like we’re not buying in … it kind of clicked in,” Miller said. “It was a lot of running in those three practices, so we had no choice. We didn’t want to lose this game and then have practice on Tuesday and just keep running. We’ll probably run anyway.”