Hurting in the worst way following a blown opportunity on senior night, the Scarlet Knights brought everything they had in the final three minutes of the last conference clash with in-state rival Seton Hall. It was Rutgers, and not its opponent, to take over with a big second-half run and the five-game losing streak ended in 56-51 fashion over the Pirates.
"You have seasons where you don't do as well and coaches are mad at the players and the players are mad at the coaches," said head coach Mike Rice. "We don't have that right now and these kids are trying so hard. They're still very much engaged. It was great to see smiling. It was great to see laughter. It was great to see them enjoy themselves."
Rutgers ended the game on a 10-4 run filled with smart defensive plays and made free throws. The only late-game gaffes came on the other bench where Seton Hall turned it over in a one-possession game, failed to box out on a free throw and committed a flagrant foul to push Rutgers to victory.
"We stayed together at the end of the game," said sophomore Myles Mack. "Usually we come apart and we just stayed together and played as a team." The game means little to Rutgers (14-15, 5-13) which locks up the No. 11 seed in the Big East tournament, but it marks multiple historic moments for the program. Rutgers has three straight wins over Seton Hall for the first time since 1980 and the first season sweep in 12 years.
After the Catholic Seven split became official earlier Friday afternoon, Rutgers gets the last Big East laugh before the two part ways and work to schedule a non-conference game next season.
The Scarlet Knights are now set to face DePaul in the first round of the tournament Tuesday at 9 p.m.
"Everybody knows we're not done," said junior guard Mike Poole. "We still have stuff to do. DePaul beat us and we know that's our next game. We know we don't want to lose to them. We want to go out of the last Big East tournament with a bang."
Mack finished with a game-high 15 points on the night and senior Dane Miller redeemed himself at the free throw line by making both to help ice the game in the last minute. Sophomore Malick Kone showed a spark off the bench with eight points and three steals.
Seeing a rare twist of fate at halftime, Rutgers had its opponent reeling with an impressive five-minute run. Struggling in the first half, the Scarlet Knights broke out on a 15-3 run to start action in the second.
Rutgers stole the ball three times and built a lead as high as 10 points before the Pirates stopped the bleeding.
It would not be a rivalry game, however, without late fireworks. SHU re-took the lead twice before impact center Eugene Teague fouled out with 2:36 left in the game. Without Teague wreaking havoc in the post, Rutgers finally finishing a game with toughness.
"He was rebounding the ball well and he was playing pretty good defense," said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. "That hurt because you get real limited with what you can do offensively."