Scarlet Knights survive D-II Caldwell

Rutgers was supposed to use the mid-week game during a lull in the Big East schedule to get experience for its reserve players, and build some confidence. Instead, the Scarlet Knights found themselves in a two-point game six minutes into the second half before pulling away for a 70-62 win against Division II Caldwell College.

PISCATAWAY – Rutgers coach Fred Hill wasn't concerned about being out-rebounded by Caldwell College, nor was the 29 points scored by Cougars sophomore Malcolm Austin a sticking point.

Even Rutgers 7-foot center Hamady Ndiaye totaling four points in 32 minutes against a team with no one taller than 6-8 wasn't something Hill thought warranted much discussion.

Hill's focus was elsewhere, like the horrific mental approach of the Scarlet Knights, who allowed a downtrodden Division II school to hang around until the final few minutes.

On a night in which Rutgers didn't charge fans to get into the game, the Scarlet Knights avoided a total embarrassment by eking out a 70-62 win Tuesday in front of 1,108 at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Afterward, no one was talking like the win held meaning, especially since Caldwell (3-19) is not even a mid-level Division II team.

"I can't look at this and say there's anything bothersome,'' Hill said. "It's the mentality that we approached the game with. You can look at any statistic you want. They're irrelevant to me. It's the mentality, and that is the most important thing.

"That was the challenge, which is a difficult challenge, and we didn't step up and meet that challenge, but we did win the ball game.''

Sophomore guard Mike Rosario, who scored 25 points, summarized Rutgers' approach to the evening.

"I don't understand why Caldwell is on our schedule, in the middle of our season,'' Rosario said. "I don't know who put that together.''

Rutgers (12-12) is at .500 later in the season than any time during Hill's four-year tenure, and the 12 wins are the most in Hill's career.

However, this wasn't the way Rutgers wanted to enter its Sunday meeting with No. 8 Georgetown.

Rather than get playing time for reserves Patrick Jackson, Austin Johnson and even some of the walk-ons, four starters played at least 32 minutes.

"We didn't play the game the way we should have,'' said junior power forward Jonathan Mitchell, who scored 14 points and had seven rebounds. "We didn't come out and take it as a learning experience and grow. We kind of just saw the jerseys in front of us and played to the level of our competition.

"We underestimated them and took them too lightly. They came out and gave us a game. …I didn't expect to play 30-something minutes. Me, being one of the leaders, I kind of took them lightly.''

Mitchell logged 36 minutes, James Beatty and Rosario each played 35 minutes and Ndiaye played 32 minutes.

Against a Caldwell zone, Rutgers lazily settled for perimeter shots rather than attack via the dribble or passing into the high post.

It led to the Scarlet Knights attempting 28 3-point shots (making 11), and 24 shots from inside the arc. Rutgers also turned the ball over 16 times, and allowed Caldwell to snare 15 offensive rebounds.

"The challenge, and that is what we talked to our guys about, is that you have to play against the game. You can't play against Caldwell College,'' Hill said. "Obviously, you're more talented, you're better, but when you don't play with the same enthusiasm, the passion, the defensive pride that allows you to compete and do certain things, these are typically tough games."

Caldwell led 18-17 with 7:20 remaining in the first half before Rosario countered with a 3-pointer on Rutgers' next possession.

The Scarlet Knights led 37-31 at the half, but saw their lead trimmed to 39-35 with 16:50 left in the second half on Austin's lay-in. A 3-pointer by Austin two minutes later cut it to 43-41 before the Scarlet Knights went on a run.

Back-to-back 3-pointers from Mitchell pushed Rutgers' lead to 53-43, and the Cougars did not challenge again.

"It's a game that if you come out with the right mentality, you hope you can get some guys some playing time and rest your starters,'' Hill said. "I was hoping if we could get away with our starters playing 18 to 22 minutes, I would have been very happy with getting other guys in.''

That didn't happen, but Rosario said he never had the feeling Caldwell could win the game.

"I didn't feel like we were going to lose,'' Rosario said, "because I was going to take over.''

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