Knights face quick turnaround after deflating defeat

<p>Sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta once again struggled with
fouls in the Knights’ 69-64 loss to DePaul, allowing the Blue
Demons to mobilize a comeback. Biruta scored only two points.</p>

Sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta once again struggled with fouls in the Knights’ 69-64 loss to DePaul, allowing the Blue Demons to mobilize a comeback. Biruta scored only two points.

In Mike Rice’s eyes, the Rutgers men’s basketball game Wednesday against DePaul ended after only 30 minutes. The Scarlet Knights nearly held a double-digit lead against the worst team in the Big East.

To the Knights, the game was over, the second-year head coach said.

“When [DePaul] made a couple of shots, it’s like our guys got sad and just wanted to go away instead of fighting back and fighting through it,” Rice said.

For the majority of the first half, Gilvydas Biruta did not have the luxury of fighting. The sophomore forward picked up two early fouls, scored only two points and watched as the Knights’ offense struggled.

“We couldn’t find our offense, and we didn’t follow our formula,” Biruta said.

Biruta averages only 7.6 points per game this season, two points less than his freshman average. He pulls down 1.1 fewer rebounds per game in his second season as well, even though he plays more than a minute more per game.

Part of the reason is his return to power forward and playing on the perimeter. As a rookie, Biruta played almost exclusively in the post. But now he contends with smaller guards in Rice’s switching defensive system.

He picked up a foul Wednesday trying to stay in front of a quicker DePaul guard.

“It’s mental toughness, understanding what we want to do and the way we want to do it,” Rice said Wednesday. “It’s disappointing. This is what the weakness of this team is. They lack a maturity, a mental toughness.”

Biruta’s absence in the first half against DePaul affected the Knights’ play in the post. Rutgers scored only two points in the paint through the first 20 minutes while Biruta watched from the bench.

“He’s really important,” said freshman point guard Myles Mack. “Every time we get him the ball, he’s like 56 percent from the field. So every time he puts up a shot, it’s bound to go in. We needed him in the first and second half.”

Rutgers also missed Biruta as a ball-handler. The Jonava, Lithuania, native possesses a rare combination of size and dribbling ability that Rice covets. Rice trusts the sophomore with the ball more than any of his other big men.

“We can just throw it to him, and he can take the pressure off of us bringing it up,” Mack said. “He can just bring it up, and when we get to half court, he can just hand it off back to us. That’s a big deal for us in the first half without him.”

The Knights (11-10, 3-5) take the Louis Brown Athletic Center floor again tomorrow, when another Big East team will test its physical and mental toughness.

Cincinnati (15-6, 5-3) boasts the conference’s second-best turnover margin at plus-4.6. It has senior forward Yancy Gates, one of the Big East’s most physically imposing big men. And it plays consistently, with only one loss by more than 7 points.

“We need to get it together because Cincinnati is a really good team,” Mack said. “If we slack on them, it’s going to be a really bad day for us.”

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