Something crazy almost happened at Madison Square Garden late Saturday night.
Rutgers, with a 22-point lead midway through the second half, almost blew a game against Iona. But the Scarlet Knights held on to win, 81-73, in the nightcap of the MSG Holiday Festival.
“Well, that was fun,” said Rutgers coach Mike Rice to open his postgame news conference, the sarcasm practically dripping off his lips.
The Scarlet Knights led 35-23 at halftime, and expanded that lead to 66-44 with 10:32 remaining in the game. That’s when the Gaels made their move, launching a furious rally to get within one point, 70-69, with 2:35 left.
In fact, Iona had a great chance to take the lead on its next possession, but Rutgers forward Wally Judge had a brilliant block on a lay-up attempt by Iona’s Taaj Ridley. That ignited a Scarlet Knights fast break, capped off by a Myles Mack layup. The Gaels never got over the hump.
“We told them in every timeout, they’re not going away. They’re gonna push,” Rice said. “We certainly bent, but didn’t break.”
Both Rice and his players agreed that Rutgers made a big mistake by trying to run with Iona in the final minutes. The result? Twenty-five Scarlet Knight turnovers.
“We started playing like they played, and I think that was bad for us,” said Mack, who had a team-high 19 points.
“They’re a good basketball team,” said Rice, of Iona. “They’re a great offensive basketball team.”
Yes, Iona can score -- the Gaels were ranked 25th in the country in scoring, at 79.5 points per game. But they couldn’t outscore Rutgers, which shot the ball well from the field (30-for-62, 48.4 percent) and outrebounded Iona 47-29 (17-9 on the offensive glass).
“They wore us down a little bit on the inside,” said Iona coach Tim Cluess. “We don’t have those kind of horses that they have in there.”
“But I’m really, really proud of my team for how hard they fought to get back in this game,” added Cluess. “They could have laid down and died, and they gave it everything they could.”
Rutgers, picked to finish 11th in the Big East this season, is now 5-2 on the young season.
“Consistency, not getting in your own way, is a general theme with this team,” said Rice. “If they just make simple plays, and share the game, I think this team can be very good.”
Iona, which was picked to finish third in the MAAC, dropped to 3-4.
“We’ll add a nice 6-8, 240-pound piece in a week and a half that’s going to help us a lot,” said Cluess, referring to David Laury, who will become eligible later this month. “I like our future with this group.”
The Gaels are coming off an at-large NCAA tournament bid last spring. When asked about making the tournament this season after the game, junior guard Sean Armand boldy said, “We’re gonna make the tournament.”
Senior guard Momo Jones, who scored a game-high 26 on Saturday, had a different perspective.
“The tournament is what, four months away?” Jones said. “We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about getting better, every day.”
Only time will tell, for both these teams.