Notre Dame forces RU out of tourney
NEW YORK — Sitting with his shoulders slumped at the postgame podium, Austin Johnson tried to make sense of the last 40 minutes.
After averaging 5.3 points per game this season, the senior forward scored a career-high 18 points last night in the second round of the Big East Tournament. But despite Johnson’s late brilliance, he watched as the Rutgers men’s basketball team’s season ended as unexpectedly in a 69-61 loss to No. 24 Notre Dame.
“There was no better place to cap off your career than at Madison Square Garden,” Johnson said. “Everything came to me at once, and it’s a crazy feeling.”
Johnson’s performance was not the only factor the No. 11-seed Scarlet Knights (15-16, 5-13) did not account for.
Guard Pat Connaughton, the Fighting Irish’s fourth-leading scorer, poured in 21 points on 6-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc, each more timely than last. He saved an airball and expiring shot clock with a put-back underneath the backboard.
He found himself feet away from the nearest defender on an open 3-pointer from the baseline following a quick inbound play. Each time Connaughton touched the ball, the fans who remained at the tournament’s nightcap took notice.
He and Notre Dame forward Tom Knight accounted for nearly 57 percent of the Irish’s offense.
“If he’s open, it’s going down,” said sophomore point guard Myles Mack of Connaughton. “That’s what he is: a shooter. He knows his role. He doesn’t take any dribbles. He knows how to get himself open.”
A 3-pointer from Mack with 1:48 left closed the Knights’ gap to 62-56, but his next field goal came with Rutgers trailing by 12. After 40 minutes, their first-half deficit proved too much to overcome.
An outlet pass and emphatic dunk from Irish (24-8, 11-7) guard Jerian Grant in the closing moments made sure of it.
“We made a couple mistakes,” Mack said. “That comes with maturity. We’ll be mature next year.”
Six-seeded Notre Dame led by as many as 16 in the first half. Rutgers head coach Mike Rice switched to a 2-3 zone with eight minutes left in the half, but Notre Dame found its holes.
The Irish scored as easily in a methodical halfcourt approach as they did in transition, and it was apparent the Knights’ luster had worn off after so long.
“I just questioned their heart,” Rice said. “Questioned their pride. Austin spoke up. And they responded.”
The Knights appeared visibly out of sync in the first half in their halfcourt offense, which featured as many confused looks as field goals.
Their haste fed Notre Dame’s patient defense, all too comfortable with making its second-round matchup a slow-paced affair.
“We fell right into it,” Rice said. “We were lackadaisical. We allowed them to dictate it in the first half.”
Rice remains optimistic for the program’s future, and he has an argument with nine returning scholarship players.
But a watered-down Big East — rightfully or not — will ramp up expectations.
Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse depart for the Atlantic Coast Conference, leaving only legacy and a handful of Conference USA transplants in their wake. Gone are the deliberate, structured defenses that have given Rutgers fits.
Gone is Madison Square Garden, the temple to some of the league’s best athletes.
And gone, to a certain is extent, is the name brand, regardless of whatever Rutgers’ new conference calls itself.
But that matters little on this night. Perspective is only the last 40 minutes.
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @Tyler_Barto. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @targumsports.
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