Prior to tipping off at Rutgers on Wednesday night, much of the talk around the team centered on not just playing well, but playing two consecutive halves of basketball – and playing both of them well. Plus, everyone seemed to be aware of the opportunity at hand, much like against Georgetown earlier this season… this was a chance to grab a road win. There was a sense of urgency. Mission accomplished, for the most part.
There are still strides to be made, since there was another opening lull to the second half (a 13-3 RU run) that allowed the Scarlet Knights to make a game of it, but for the most part, all parties were pleased with the first Big East road win of the season, 79-69.
The win was all the more special for senior guard Donnie McGrath, who considers the Rutgers Athletic Center his own personal "Waterloo," for missing four free throws in the waning seconds of a devastating loss there two seasons ago. McGrath silenced the RAC crowd early with deadly shooting accuracy, hitting his first eight shots from the floor, scoring 17 first half points (23 total for the game) and connecting on five three-pointers.
Couple McGrath's offense with the defensive looks the Friars gave Rutgers' junior guard Quincy Douby, and the night was solid for the Friars on both ends. After opening in a man-to-man defense, PC put an extended 2-3 zone on RU, and maintained an awareness of Douby at all times.
The 2-3 zone was almost a match-up, in a sense, as Douby's presence on the floor caused the zone to shade toward him, wherever he was. The end result was an 18-point night for the Big East's leading scorer (23.3 points per game) on 5-20 field goal shooting (1-10 from two-point range). By extending the zone, however, there were chances for the Scarlet Knights in the middle… squandered on large part thanks to the defensive efforts of Herbert Hill and company on the back line.
"We just had real good communication back there, between Geoff (McDermott) Jon (Kale) and myself," Hill said on the radio post-game show. "We knew that extending the defense would create gaps, so we just did a good job of talking."
Hill also had one of his best games on offense, with a Big East career high 19 points and 10 rebounds, good for his first double-double of the season, and the second of his career. Rutgers had great concern going into the game for Randall Hanke, and his ability to run the floor, but as it turned out, they paid little attention to Hill and Kale, and both players punished the Scarlet Knights. Kale had a solid effort, with 11 points and seven rebounds, and is gaining more and more confidence as the season progresses.
After the win over DePaul, the Friars returned to the practice floor to find the coaching staff "lying in wait." Monday's practice was particularly tough, both on the floor and off of it in the film session. The coaches took the opportunity to jump on the team so they wouldn't let up or relax after getting that first win…a move that seems to have paid off. Assistant coach Bill Courtney, who is as candid as a coach can be, said he knew that would be the right thing to do with this team – they thrive on pressure, and enjoy responding to a challenge.
There was a small challenge in getting to New Jersey for the Friars, as the bus ride from campus took almost six hours on Tuesday night, thanks to traffic construction tie-ups in Connecticut. But once the team arrived at their hotel, it was business as usual.
Geoff McDermott continues to wear the protective boot on his bruised left foot whenever he isn't playing, and while it doesn't appear to be a big problem for him, his injury is not progressing as originally hoped. The stress "bruise" is still painful, and Geoff insists on playing through it. The team is monitoring him daily, and it has been determined he will need a full six weeks of inactivity in order for the injury to heal properly.
With two Big East wins in a row to fuel them, the young Friars get the ultimate test on Saturday when #1 ranked UConn visits the Dunk. The historical implications are obvious…first visit by a top-ranked team in more than 20 years, and 30 years since the one (and only) win over a #1 team (Michigan in 1976). Those facts are lost on this team, however. They only care about playing in the present, and about getting the chance to see where they stack up against one of the nation's best.
A rather mature attitude for a team that continues to grow up with every bounce of the basketball, don't you think?
On The Road With John Rooke: Rutgers
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