And for good reason, since the it looked like everyone was ready to leave well before Thursday's tip-off against St. Peter's. "I threatened them somewhere around the six-minute mark that we were going to have two practices tomorrow," Rice said.
Whether it was a masterful psychological move or pure coincidence, it was a turning point as Rutgers went on a 12-6 run in the final 6:45 to survive a lackluster effort and also survive St. Peter's, 55-52, in front of 4,999 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
The win was the sixth straight for the Scarlet Knights (9-2), and also gave Rice the best start by a first-year Rutgers coach since Donald S. White began the 1945-46 season 10-2, but it came only after Nick Leon couldn't get a shot off at the buzzer.
However, after Rutgers was out-rebounded 33-31, shot 14 of 27 from the free throw line, had 11 assists and 11 turnover and trailed by 12 points in the second half, there wasn't much Christmas cheer.
"I think, definitely, we need this break," Rutgers point guard James Beatty said. "I think guys' legs are getting tired because we go so hard every day."
Perhaps it was the flights or drives home, or the last-minute Christmas shopping to be done, or even Tuesday's matchup with North Carolina at Madison Square Garden that was on the minds of the Scarlet Knights, but afterward several admitted the intensity and commitment to playing well did not exist for much of the night.
"Where do I start on this one? Saint Peter's wanted it more for most of the game," Rice said. "They had a great fight to them. They had a great purpose in the way they played. Down two men, they didn't let it stop them. Their determination, their execution, their will for most of the night was greater than ours."
"If you want to put it in one word, we were soft," Rutgers senior guard Mike Coburn said. "We didn't play hard enough. We didn't come to play, and it showed out there."
Rutgers slowly whittled its way back into the game and it started with freshman Mike Poole scoring on a putback en route to a team-leading 14 points, which equaled his career-high.
A jumper by Jonathan Mitchell and a 3-pointer from Austin Carroll trimmed St. Peter's lead to 43-41 with 9:22 to play, but the Scarlet Knights still trailed 46-43 when Rice made is threat of holding a Christmas Eve practice with 6:45 to play.
"We are not talented enough to get in our own way and still beat a quality opponent," Rice said. "Whether it is missed free throws, turnovers, lack of execution, whatever it may be, we just kept getting in our way tonight, especially the upperclassmen. It is nice to have again some of the younger guys step up like a Mike Poole and still hang your hat on the defensive side."
Out of the timeout, Rutgers scored five straight points, taking its first lead since 23-22 late in the first half, when Mitchell made a jumper.
The Scarlet Knights had a chance to secure the game from the free throw line, but they went 4 of 10 in the final 1:35 to give the Peacocks a chance at the buzzer. However, Nick Leon could not get a shot off in the final seconds as Rutgers held on for the win.
"I think they're a little bigger and stronger, and we got a little fatigue, to be honest," St. Peter's coach John Dunne said. "I think we lost our energy and they seized the moment. They just out-played us down the stretch and I thought there were times where we had a couple open looks that didn't fall."