Rutgers fans knew this would be a roller-coaster season for the freshmen-heavy Scarlet Knights, but nobody could have predicted the ride they were in for. After a slow start, Rutgers shocked everyone by picking off the tenth-ranked Florida Gators, but then dropped their next two games, including a 21-point beating from West Virginia at home. Not knowing which Rutgers team would show up, I arrived at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) on Saturday night, January 7, just hoping for a competitive game against the No. 8 ranked Connecticut Huskies.
But then that roller-coaster took off again, and Rutgers ended up besting the defending national champs, 67-60. What I loved most about the win was the total team effort from the Scarlet Knights. Don't get me wrong, the Florida game was one for the ages, but it probably never would have happened if Eli Carter didn't catch fire for 31 points.
Rutgers forward Dane Miller set the tone early against UConn with a two-handed jam off of Eli Carter's lob pass in the first minute of the game. Miller contributed 8 points, 5 rebounds, and a blocked shot on the night, but even more importantly, played with an energy that was noticeably lacking from his game against West Virginia.
Carter once again led the team in scoring, netting 19 points before fouling out late in the game. I have already heard some buzz amongst Rutgers fans comparing Carter to Rutgers' star guard Quincy Douby (2003-2006). It's still much too early to start making those comparisons, but Carter is proving himself an explosive threat on offense whose shooting range and ability to penetrate to the hoop make it tough to defend against him.
Fellow freshman guard Myles Mack scored 14 points, 11 of which came in the second half. Rutgers knocked down 55.6% of their three-pointers during that half, most of which were at the hands of Carter and Mack with the game on the line. Either nobody told these two freshmen that UConn is one of the best teams in the country, or they have ice water running through their veins.
As consistent as Rutgers' offense was, it was their solid defensive effort that sealed the win. The Scarlet Knights held UConn to just over 37% shooting and forced 20 turnovers. Huskies' guard Jeremy Lamb looked flustered all night as Rutgers' defenders held him to single digit scoring (8 points) for the first time all season. But the stat that really jumped out at me was this: Rutgers held UConn to just one basket outside of the paint in the entire first half. That's pretty impressive, considering that the Huskies came into the RAC shooting 49% as a team.
Speaking of impressive, credit to Rutgers' head coach Mike Rice for Saturday's win. Love him or hate him, you can't deny Rice's passion for the team, and whatever he said to his guys after last week's embarrassing loss to West Virginia certainly seemed to get their attention. Saturday marked just the second time in Rutgers history that they beat two top-ten teams in the same season, and their first win over Connecticut in almost 10 years. There's no denying that Rutgers is still a very young team with plenty of bumps in the road still ahead, but as a fan, I couldn't be happier to have Mike Rice in the driver's seat.
Rutgers faces the Pittsburgh Panthers on Wednesday, January 11, on the road.
Joe is a graduate of Rutgers University, and longtime fan of Scarlet Knights basketball.