Twist of fate grants Rutgers another day
NEW YORK — One by one, they made their way into the cage.
A freight elevator deep within the bowels of Madison Square Garden takes members of the Rutgers men’s basketball team down to floor level after each Big East Tournament game, closing with a loud thud each time.
In most years, the walk from the Scarlet Knights’ locker room has ended in disappointment inside the gray-stained corridor.
But following a 76-57 first-round victory last night against DePaul, the only certainty is if the Knights will make another postgame trip tonight.
“Going through [the elevator] this time [means] knowing we live for another day,” said senior wing Dane Miller, part of a second tournament victory in three years. “The tournament can help our chances with the NIT or whatever the case may be.”
Rutgers, a No. 11 seed, used a 20-8 run to begin the second half to distance itself from last-place DePaul (11-21, 2-16). It saw contributions across the board.
Junior forward Wally Judge scored a season-high 20 points on 9-for-9 shooting — tying a tournament record held by Boston College’s Craig Smith and Villanova’s Ricky Wright for most field goals without a miss — and 10 rebounds.
Sophomore point guard Myles Mack added 19 points, and sophomore guard Jerome Seagears contributed timely second-half spurts, recording 15 points and seven boards.
Rutgers (15-15, 5-13) faces six-seeded Notre Dame tonight at 9:15 p.m.
“I thought we’d have more balance this year, and for some reason it didn’t work out,” Rice said. “Who knows the growth of a team? It may take some longer than others. It was a good night, a very good night.”
But it did not come with ease.
The Knights succumbed to the Blue Demons’ frenetic pace during several second-half stretches, turning the Garden’s nightcap into a back-and-forth war of attrition.
DePaul came within eight before Rutgers closed on an 18-7 run.
“I like that pace,” Rice said. “I don’t mind playing at that pace, and I know they all don’t. Maybe at the three-minute mark I didn’t need the alley-oop pass, but they were feeling very confident.”
Following back-to-back DePaul 3-pointers, Mack answered with a 3-point conversion as the first-half buzzer sounded, giving Rutgers a 32-31 halftime lead. The sophomore scored 10 first-half points, and the Knights were at their best when Mack held the ball in space.
Rutgers has grown dependent on Mack’s emerging 5-foot-9 frame.
A Feb. 16 season-ending injury to leading scorer Eli Carter forced Rice to be creative with Mack’s team-high 29.9 minutes per game. The Paterson, N.J., native has averaged 35.8 minutes in Carter’s absence, while Seagears, Rutgers’ only other primary ball-handler, has logged 32.9.
Mack is one of few Knights that can create their own shots, and Rutgers will need more of the same to advance any farther in the tournament.
“I’ve been doing this for a couple of games now,” Mack said of his heavy workload. “In practice, I stay in the whole time. I don’t take any breaks. It’s kicking in now.”
Rice pointed to Mack’s development in Rutgers’ halfcourt offense as a sign of the team’s improvement. But one of Rice’s own calls benefited the Knights more against DePaul.
With Rutgers trailing 14-13 midway through the first half, Rice switched to a 2-3 zone, forcing DePaul’s up-and-down offense to run structured sets.
The Knights went on a 14-9 run before DePaul’s outside shooting kept it within one possession.
Rutgers could have faltered with another second-half collapse, which plagued stretches of its Big East season. It could have bowed out after an emotional five-point victory Friday at in-state rival Seton Hall.
Yet the Knights closed the door, and a freight elevator will follow suit at least one more time.
For updates on the Rutgers basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @Tyler_Barto.