It was a chance to test the mental makeup of the Scarlet Knights, and he "absolutely loved "what he saw.
Rutgers rebounded from a dreary first half to dominate the Red Foxes, holding them to 20 percent shooting in the second half while dissecting their 2-3 zone defense en route to a 64-48 win in front of 3,826 fans Tuesday at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Jonathan Mitchell made 3 of 4 shots from 3-point range and finished with a game-high 16 points and freshman Gilvydas Biruta continued his accelerated growth with 15 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double.
Dane Miller added 12 points and 10 rebounds, blocked two shots and had a steal.
"They definitely took a step forward tonight," Rice said. "This team has to play like that. We all know that. This team has to have an urgency and a toughness about them because they're not going to be the most athletic night-in and night-out. …We have to have that relentlessness to us."
Rutgers (5-2) used a smothering defense in the second half to stifle Marist, which trailed by nine points early but built an eight-point lead late in the first half.
The Red Foxes (2-7) managed only 13 field goals, and shot 27.7 percent for the game.
"I think a lot of guys came through for us with a relentlessness," Rice said. "Instead of being on our heels, we dictated in the second half."
The intrigue for Rice came in watching the Scarlet Knights have to play tough defense and will themselves past a Marist team that frustrated Rutgers in the first half, when the Scarlet Knights settled for shots and lacked aggressiveness while falling behind 27-21.
"The coaching staff talked about it and said, ‘This will be interesting to see how they respond,' " Rice said. "Because you really don't know. They have to become less fragile. Whatever happens on the offensive end, you have to get down and dig in on defense. I like this team. They are getting a tougher skin to them."
The Red Foxes expanded their lead to 33-25 early in the second half, but Mike Coburn (14 points, 4 assists) trigged an 11-0 run with a pair of free throws. His jumper with 14:57 left tied it 33-33, and Biruta's dunk gave the Scarlet Knights a two-point lead. Coburn capped the run with a free throw.
"We just moved the ball and shared," Biruta said. "We just listened to the coach."
Rutgers, like it has done several times this season, put the game away rather than allowing an inferior opponent back in it.
Mitchell began a decisive 15-2 run with a 3-pointer from the left corner. He made another 3-pointer from the corner over the zone and converted a basket and free throw in the spurt as well as the Scarlet Knights pushed their lead to 53-39 with 7:25 to play. Rutgers shot 55 percent (16 of 29) from the field in the second half.
"Coach came in at the half and said ‘Don't worry about not making shots. Our shots are going to fall,' " Mitchell said. "He said to keep defending and keep playing Rutgers basketball, but don't let missing shots dictate our defense."