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Late-game woes frustrate Rice

<p>Head coach Mike Rice looks on during last night’s 60-54 loss to Marquette at the RAC. Rutgers held a 10-point advantage at halftime, but were outscored 39-23 by the Golden Eagles in the second half.</p>

Head coach Mike Rice looks on during last night’s 60-54 loss to Marquette at the RAC. Rutgers held a 10-point advantage at halftime, but were outscored 39-23 by the Golden Eagles in the second half.

Locker to locker, Mike Rice slowly made his rounds.

Fresh off a 60-54 loss to No. 15 Marquette, he whispered words of encouragement, slapped players on the back and made himself emotionally available.

It is not usual postgame protocol for the Rutgers head men’s basketball coach — especially after he meets them immediately after the game — but these are not usual times.

“I’ve talked about it before in press conferences: the inability to understand how to close games out,” said Rice, who was visibly shaken up after the game. “They’re close.”

As Rice walked off the Louis Brown Athletic Center court following a 10-point first-half lead, he likely could not have envisioned a much better scenario.

The Rutgers men’s basketball team shot 58 percent from the field, its best mark in a half since Dec. 21. And his frontcourt rotation contained Marquette’s Davante Gardner and Chris Otule, one of the Big East’s more physically imposing duos.

As the first half wore on, Rice pumped his fist, clapped his hands and looked on with hope. The Scarlet Knights (13-15, 4-13) were playing a near-flawless session of basketball against one of the conference’s top teams.

“They keep fighting,” Rice said. “Unlike the media, they’re all back. Most of them understand where they were when they first stepped on here and where they’re going to get to. Some leagues, it’s just tougher than others. Some programs, it’s tougher than others.”

Sophomore point guard Jerome Seagears watched the ball carom off his shoe with less than 25 seconds left with Rutgers down by two, and Marquette (22-7, 13-4) found itself at the free throw line following a wild scrum for a loose ball.

Rice originally designed for Seagears to come off a screen, creating a two-on-one opportunity in space.

The Knights, losers of 11 of their last 12 games, have watched their season slip away in similar fashion.

“[I feel] a little numb,” said senior forward Austin Johnson. “It’s kind of weird knowing I’ll never play another game here. I’m just proud of the effort the guys showed, regardless if we won or not.”

Rutgers scored only 23 points in the second half, the sixth time this season they failed to score at least 29 points in the final 20 minutes. They have averaged 23 second-half points in their last two games, both against top-four teams in the Big East.

Eight of the Knights’ conference losses have come by 10 points or less.

“I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t think it would be this hard,” said sophomore point guard Myles Mack, who went undefeated in 2010-2011 at St. Anthony (N.J.). “It’s really hard. Two bad seasons, I’m just fighting through it.”

Free throw shooting proved Rutgers’ undoing against Marquette.

Mack, the league’s top free throw shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with the score tied at 52. Senior wing Dane Miller failed to convert twice with the Knights trailing, 56-54, with 1:10 remaining.

The Knights shot 4-for-9 as a team from the free throw line.

“It was difficult,” Mack said. “I did my regular routine, [the ball] just went in and out. I’m not sure what happened.”

Gardner, Otule and forward Jamil Wilson were scoreless in the first half, and Marquette — which owns the best rebounding margin in Big East play — held only a slim advantage at the break.

Rutgers’ big men agitated Gardner for 20 minutes, keeping the 6-foot-8, 290-pounder from gaining low-post position. But Gardner came away with a rebound after several Rutgers attempts around the rim in the waning moments, sealing the Knights’ fate in an all too familiar way.

“Some of the same mistakes keep popping up,” Rice said, “but sometimes you learn the hard way.”

For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @Tyler_Barto.

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