Knights even Big East record, improve at RAC against ND
The play occurred less than three minutes into the action at the Louis Brown Athletic Center last night and was hardly noticeable. It left Eli Carter, the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s freshman guard, without the bottom half of his No. 5.
A referee inconspicuously picked up the torn fabric, tossing it to the Scarlet Knights sideline.
But with the back of his jersey ripped, Carter still made sure the crowded RAC knew who he was, propelling the Knights to a 65-58 victory against Notre Dame.
“I noticed it and saw the number on the floor,” said Carter, Rutgers’ leading scorer in five of six Big East games. “One of the managers brought it over to me, and I said, ‘Forget it.’”
Against an opponent known for making the little plays, Rutgers (11-8, 3-3) out-detailed the Irish (11-8, 3-3) and Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. The Knights scooped up loose balls, ended up with second-chance rebounds and were simply a step faster.
Their play hardly resembled the team returning to Piscataway off a 24-point loss Saturday at West Virginia.
“I’ve been coming to the RAC for a long time,” Brey said. “The theme is usually the same. Their guys really play with confidence at the RAC.”
Nursing a slim 2-point lead, the Knights looked to scrappy sophomore guard Mike Poole. The St. Benedict’s (N.J.) product converted a pair of runners to widen the Rutgers margin.
With 15 minutes to play, the Irish never closed the gap.
The Knights finished the contest with a 7-point advantage for their third win in four tries, their best Big East run in recent memory. And they learned to cap a back-and-forth game in the process.
“To grind out a game is another step forward in the development of this team,” said head coach Mike Rice. “We had several players step up. It was a very good team performance.”
The Knights, beneficiaries of late Notre Dame turnovers, took a 39-31 lead into halftime. Carter and freshman point guard Jerome Seagears combined for 14 points in the first 20 minutes, quelling a pair of Irish runs.
Both teams had their way around the rim.
Notre Dame shot 50 percent from the field in the early going, while Rutgers enjoyed a 56-percent shooting clip. But despite the presence of Irish big man Jack Cooley, the Knights dictated play in the paint.
“They really wear on you,” Brey said. “Mike [Rice’s] teams always play hard.”
Deft passes led to easy lay-ins for the Rutgers frontcourt. Junior wing Dane Miller was often the man responsible. The third-year player showed flashes of the point forward many tabbed him as at the start of the season. He led the Knights in rebounding, provided a shot-altering presence inside the elbow — he blocked a game-high four shots — and came away with three steals.
And Miller continues to do so with growing consistency.
“He’s been unbelievable the last two weeks,” Rice said. “If he gives me [consistent effort], we’re such a better team when he does that.”
The win, the Knights’ second against Notre Dame in three years, returned Rutgers to a .500 record in conference play, its best six-game start since a 4-2 mark in 2003-04. It was also their third Big East victory this season against an opponent that earned an NCAA Tournament appearance last year.
By comparison, the 2010-11 Knights took 11 conference games to best two NCAA Tournament participants.
“That’s all it should mean is confidence,” Rice said. “We want to be on the left side [in the RAC]. That’s where the top-eight teams are [in the Big East]. One of our team managers said, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever been on the left side.’”
So Rice and the team screamed, “Left side,” throughout the game. His players heeded the call.