Knights upset pair of top-10 opponents at RAC
Rutgers head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice quickly escaped the floor following the Scarlet Knights’ 84-60 thrashing at the hands of West Virginia, their second loss to the Mountaineers in 10 days.
But lost in the lopsided defeat were the major inroads the Knights made during winter break, including upset victories against then-No. 8 Connecticut and then-No. 10 Florida.
Rutgers’ 3-3 record during the stretch served as a sample size of its larger effort during a 10-8 season to that point.
“I’m with them every single day, and it’s amazing,” Rice said following the Knights’ 67-60 victory against UConn. “Even our strength coach says one day they’re lifting like they’re going into the Olympics, [and] the next day it’s like they’ve never seen a weight before. It’s just the mentality that young people have. It’s difficult bringing it every day, and that’s why good teams have that.”
The Knights’ Big East schedule, full of the good teams Rice alluded to, welcomed Rutgers unceremoniously following its non-conference finale, an 85-83, double-overtime win against the Gators.
The Knights dropped their first two league contests at South Florida and at the Louis Brown Athletic Center against West Virginia. Their 0-2 mark to start league play was an all-too-familiar sign of seasons past. After all, it was how the Big East started for Rutgers for five straight years.
And then the Huskies paid a visit to Piscataway.
“There is no question that these guys like the big moment, and they’re not afraid of the big moment,” Rice said.
The Knights went toe-to-toe for 40 minutes with UConn, a foe they had not toppled in their last 10 tries. And they left the RAC with two victories against top-10 teams, a feat not accomplished there in 30 years.
“First of all, congratulations to Rutgers,” said UConn head coach Jim Calhoun postgame. “They more than earned the victory. They’re one of the younger teams in the country and frankly, just beat us up.”
The Knights’ catalyst was once again freshman guard Eli Carter, who totaled 19 points in the landmark victory, Rice’s third at the RAC against a top-10 program.
Carter’s effort sparked Rutgers less than five days after the Big East named him its Rookie of the Week.
He dropped a career-high 31 points in a team-high 46 minutes against Florida. He followed it up with 23 points in Rutgers’ conference opener. And in doing so, Carter emerged as the late-game threat Rice so sorely called for during the non-conference slate.
“This team has it in them. You go down the line, they are athletes — they’re just inexperienced right now,” Rice said Jan. 7. “When we’re like that, when we’re jumping at the ball, when we’re paying attention to details, when we’re communicating, those things can happen.”
The team’s momentum began to roll against the Gators, the Knights’ final game before a brutal 18-game conference stretch.
The win, which rudely greeted former Knight Mike Rosario, served as a measuring stick. Rutgers long dropped its final non-conference game to North Carolina, an opponent supposed to prepare it for the Big East. It served its purpose, but not in an encouraging way.
The Knights’ outlasting of UConn proved the win against Florida was not a fluke. And Rice finally earned a marquee road win four days later at Pittsburgh, where he once graced the sidelines as an assistant.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to win the next game or even compete in the next game,” Rice said Dec. 29. “What it should mean is that belief in the system, belief in the execution.”
Rice was right. The team dropped its next two games to open league play and fell twice to West Virginia by a combined 169-124. But in less than two years, Rice already begins to paint his early legacy. And it includes a pair of top-10 wins within nine days of each other.
“I’m excited because everyone counted us out and said we were underdogs,” said junior wing Dane Miller following the win against Florida. “We didn’t listen to that.”
Miller’s testimony might be Rice’s greatest contribution.
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