After Mike Rosario's acrobatic 3-pointer rallied Rutgers for a six-point deficit with 36 seconds remaining to tie it, 11th-seeded Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson made a free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining to end 14th-seeeded Scarlet Knights' season with a 69-68 defeat in the first round of the Big East tournament Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Now comes the most important decision of Tim Pernett's young career as the Scarlet Knight's athletic director. Pernetti and coach Fred Hill will meet in the coming days to discuss the direction of the program, at which time a decision on whether Hill gets a fifth year could be made.
"I thought (coach Hill) did a great job keeping us together and just telling us to push ourselves, push ourselves every day in practice,'' Rosario said. "I wouldn't mind him being our coach for the next two years.''
Hill maintained the last few months that the strength of the Scarlet Knights program remains their returning players. With Hamady Ndiaye being the only senior, Hill said an NCAA Tournament berth is the goal.
Hill spoke at length the day before the tournament about his tenure, and he said the program is in "terrific" shape
What Pernetti will weigh over the next few days is whether Rutgers (15-17) showed enough promise and progress despite finishing below .500 for a fourth straight season.
"I've got all the faith in the world in our administration, and what coach Hill has done for us,'' Rutgers power forward Jonathan Mitchell said. "Let the chips fall where they may, and I'm looking forward to coach Hill coaching us next year.''
Stephenson, the Big East's rookie of the year, led Cincinnati with 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Jaquon Parker added 13 points and Yancy Gates had 10 points. The Bearcats face sixth-seeded Louisville in Wednesday's second round.
Rosario scored a game-high 26 points and Mitchell added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Ndiaye added seven points and eight rebounds, and also blocked five shots. He leaves with 358 career blocks, three more than Roy Hinson's previous school mark.
"I know I always wanted to leave my mark at Rutgers,'' Ndiaye said. "This is one of the ways.''
As has been the case so many times this season, the effort was there.
However, the Scarlet Knights were outrebounded 49-31, but still found a way to claw back from an eight-point deficit with 3:14 to play. A field goal by Rosario pulled Rutgers within 65-61, but a pair of free throws by Deonta Vaughn with 36 seconds remaining gave the Bearcats a 67-61 lead.
Four free throws by Mike Coburn and Mitchell pulled Rutgers within 67-65, and Vaughn's free throw extended Cincinnati's lead to 68-65.
Rosario then pump-faked to get his defender in the air before, with his body twisting, making an off-balance 3-pointer from straight ahead to tie it 68-68 with 15 seconds left.
"I just did what coach told me to do,'' Rosario said. "I think I did a great job of executing the play. It was a great shot.''
However, Stephenson demanded the ball on the inbounds, then drove to his left and was fouled by Dane Miller, with Ndiaye helping, at the side of the basket with 1.8 seconds left.
"I knew he wasn't going to take a jump shot,'' Miller said. "The whole thing was I was forcing him to go to his left. He loves going right. I had him, and had my hands up, and (Ndiaye) came over. …There's no way you can call a foul there. You can't end the game like that.''
Stephenson made the first free throw and missed the second one purposely since Rutgers didn't have any timeouts remaining.
"The guys have great heart,'' Hill said. "They've got great chemistry. I think they did an unbelievable job and maybe deserved to win.''