NEW YORK -- When the final horn mercifully sounded Tuesday night, just before 11:30 p.m., Mike Rice wasted no time exiting the Madison Square Garden floor.
After the perfunctory handshakes with the opposing coaches and players, the Rutgers head coach stopped on a dime, turned and walked briskly back toward his team’s locker room, head down, shaking his noggin the whole way.
Who could blame him?
Rice had just watched his team go from up four at halftime to down 21 at the buzzer, and its season end in the process -- a 70-49 loss to Villanova in the opening round of the Big East tournament.
“Obviously it’s very hard to win a basketball game only scoring three field goals in the second half,” said Rice at the postgame news conference.
That’s right -- Rutgers had just three buckets, total, in the final 20 minutes of play. The Scarlet Knights shot 3-for-25 -- that translates to 12 percent, for those of you without your calculators handy.
Those numbers are so ugly, they might break your calculator.
Meanwhile Villanova, which trailed Rutgers 34-30 at intermission, outscored Rutgers 40-15 in the second half.
“We made some mental errors that led to their transition, led to their wide-open looks in the paint, and it just snowballed from there,” said Rice.
Villanova’s second-team All-Big East point guard Maalik Wayns schooled the Scarlet Knights to the tune of 28 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Rutgers freshman Eli Carter almost matched him, with 23 points of his own. But none of his teammates scored more than seven.
“A young team might not have responded as well as I would have liked, but these things happen,” Rice said. “Learn from it. Hopefully use that as motivation in the spring and the summer to improve, to get stronger, to maybe be able to finish some of the shots down in the paint. But that’s life when you have a very young basketball team.”
Rutgers is indeed a very young team, with mostly freshmen and sophomores in the rotation. The Scarlet Knights won’t be happy with their 14-18 final record, or the way they played in the final 20 minutes of their season. But there were a few bright spots, such as wins over Florida and UConn in late December and early January, when both teams were ranked in the Top 10.
Carter, a freshman, was the team’s leading scorer at 13.8 points per game. Several other young players, like fellow freshman guards Myles Mack and Jerome Seagears, showed promise at times. And with no seniors on the roster (besides a pair of walk-ons), the entire nucleus will be back -- plus Wally Judge, a talented transfer from Kansas State.
Junior forward Dane Miller, who will be the team’s senior leader next season, talked about how the team can improve after the game. “I think a couple things that we’ve got to work on is just attention to details,” Miller said. “Being locked in and being real focused on both ends of the court. I think now, as the games go by, we saw that you can’t win a lot of games like that without being focused. We just need to come in during the offseason and listen to Coach Rice and the whole coaching staff and we should be very successful.”
“We’re going to lock them in the weight room, too,” Rice said, chuckling.
That was about the only chuckle we saw from Rice after halftime Tuesday night. Rutgers has now endured six straight losing seasons, including the last two under his watch. But Rice sounded as confident as ever after the game, despite such a tough loss.
“It’s going to happen,” Rice said. “Rutgers is going to happen.”