Late tie-up seals win in regular-season finale
NEWARK — As the clock ticked to fewer than 30 seconds and the Rutgers men’s basketball team clung to a three-point lead Friday, Myles Mack had seen this play out before.
Not the Scarlet Knights’ inability to close out games, their 11 losses in 12 tries or another tightly contested matchup with in-state rival Seton Hall.
Mack was used to wing Fuquan Edwin, the Pirates’ late-game playmaker.
“I played with him a lot,” said Mack, a sophomore point guard. “I know he loves to go right. He jabbed me, and I knew he wasn’t going left.”
Mack anticipated correctly, and the two former Paterson Catholic guards and close friends dove to the Prudential Center floor in a scrum for a loose ball. Mack forced a tie-up, and the Knights held off Seton Hall, 56-51, for their first regular-season sweep of the Pirates since 2001.
For the first time since Feb. 12 — Rutgers’ last win — the Knights (14-15, 5-13) did not play victim.
“It’s great for it to happen from us doing it instead of it happening to us,” said Mack, who scored 15 points and tied his career high with five steals.
Mack had seen the emotional toll that five straight losses sapped from head coach Mike Rice, he said March 5. The third-year head coach ended another single-digit loss that night with his most emotional press conference of the season, the low point of a low season.
But after winning his third game in as many years at Seton Hall (14-17, 3-15) and with a first-round matchup in the Big East Tournament with DePaul tomorrow, Rice found peace.
“Being in Division I for 23 years, you have seasons where you don’t do as well,” he said. “Coaches are mad at players, players are mad at coaches. We don’t have that. These kids are trying so hard. It was great to see smiles. It was great to see laughter. It was great to see them enjoy themselves.”
Malick Kone afforded the Knights that opportunity.
The little-used sophomore forward scored eight points on 3-for-6 shooting and added three rebounds and three steals. Kone’s free throw with fewer than 20 seconds left gave Rutgers a two-possession lead, and the Knights added more following a steal from junior guard Mike Poole.
“Those eight points might not seem like a lot, but when you’re 12th or 13th in the Big East in scoring, those eight points are huge,” Rice said of Kone. “Those are eight points they don’t expect because he only averages three.”
Rice has called on larger roles for bench players since leading scorer Eli Carter suffered a season-ending fractured fibula Feb. 16 at DePaul. Kone has seen more minutes since then, but his performance against Seton Hall was his most meaningful in Big East play.
“Malick is a guy coaches probably don’t scout the best,” Poole said. “He just did his job. He came in, rebounded, got steals. Fifteen minutes? That’s really big. We need him to do that.”
Poole said the Knights have spent even more time focusing on the defensive end since Carter’s injury.
Part of the reason is defensive-minded players like Kone are forced to log more minutes. Another is compensating for Carter’s 14.9 points per game in other ways.
“We’re going to get those 15 points some way: on stops on defense or somebody else is going to score 15 points,” Poole said. “[It is] probably not someone is going to score 15 points out of the blue, so defense has to turn up and make big plays.”
The Knights held their last two opponents to 60 points or less and a sub-37-percent mark from 3-point range. They forced 19 Seton Hall turnovers, which led to 25 points mostly on layups.
“There had to be a difference tonight,” Rice said, “and that difference was our pressure and the ability to turn them over.”
Rice spoke in figures after the game, listing the percentage of scoring and assists returning to the team next season. He felt the optimism and showed it.
But the future would have mattered little following yet another loss, especially with Seton Hall playing spoiler.
“It’s important to the program. It’s important to the fan base,” Rice said. “Is it national news right now or the biggest thing in New Jersey? No, but it is for these two programs.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @Tyler_Barto.