Rutgers spoils 11-point lead in ugly loss
Mike Rice pumped his fist, clapped his hands and grabbed his whiteboard from an assistant. Ten minutes still remained in the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s contest last night against DePaul, yet the head coach started to breathe easier.
But then the Blue Demons stated their case. The Scarlet Knights’ cushion became a 1-point deficit. A timeout stopped the clock, but this time it was Rice’s doing — and not that of Blue Demon head coach Oliver Purnell. Rice grabbed for the same whiteboard, but not with the conviction he earlier showed.
DePaul ultimately escaped the Louis Brown Athletic Center last night with a 69-64 win, overcoming an 11-point hole, in a showing with more follies than highlights.
“Our guys apparently were surprised when DePaul came back,” Rice said. “It was a very disappointing last eight minutes of the game. Not many positives came out of last night.”
The Blue Demons could leave satisfied. The Knights simply left without many answers.
They found one in freshman point guard Myles Mack, who scored a game-high 22 points. But a corner 3-pointer while Rutgers was trailing by 2 in the closing moments did not fall.
“I just thought to myself that I was going to make it,” Mack said. “I shot it, and I thought it was going in. It just hit the back of the rim on the side.”
One of the Big East’s youngest rosters looked the part against DePaul (11-9, 2-6), whose league-worst conference defense kept the matchup close.
The Knights (11-10, 3-5) flirted with a double-digit lead for the final fourth of the game, but they rarely played like it. And they quickly found it disappeared.
They moved the ball, but the ball never went anywhere. They tried the post, but sophomore forward Gilyvdas Biruta suffered through early foul trouble. They struggled, and they lost.
“It’s extremely frustrating because you’re working every day on the same stuff,” Biruta said. “We have to get better, and we don’t.”
The beneficiary was a team familiar with the bottom rung of the Big East standings. The Blue Demons’ lone prior conference win was against Pittsburgh, who before last night was winless in league play.
Long a conference afterthought, DePaul continues to give Rutgers fits. It narrowly lost to the Knights last season in Chicago, despite the Knights’ one turnover. Rutgers did not fare better a year later, even despite its shiny new toys — namely a retooled roster and renewed confidence.
“From last year, we lost our senior players, who were consistent,” Biruta said. “They were more mature. We had somebody to look up to. And right now, we probably miss somebody that we have to look up to.”
Rutgers and DePaul combined for 17 first-half giveaways, compared to 22 combined field goals.
They turned the ball over, botched tip-ins and did little to establish consistency. The back-and-forth swings favored DePaul early, but the Blue Demons often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
“I can point to 25 different instances where our guys didn’t stay the course, didn’t follow the formula,” Rice said. “When that happens, there’s a small margin of error.”
There was little doubt two traditional Big East also-rans took the floor last night in Piscataway. The Blue Demons claimed the unenviable title as the last team standing, but little else.
The victory was a consolation prize. Rutgers gift-wrapped it nicely.
And yet the Knights nearly boasted their best conference start since the 2003-04 season — four days removed from a 2-point loss to No. 9 Georgetown.
For now, Rice will take away what he can. But it likely will not help him breathe easier during late nights at the RAC. He really does not have much choice.
“A night like this, I wanted to scream at all of them,” Rice said. “And I had a right to scream at all of them for one reason or another.”
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