By Matt Sugam
PISCATAWAY – As much as Mike Rice tried to put the blinders on himself, his coaching staff and his team, the third-year head coach could feel the pressure mounitng. A six-game skid after a promising 3-2 start in conference play had Rutgers’ season spiraling out of control.
“You’re still looking at the standings,” Rice said. “You’re still looking at what you’ve done in the last month and it’s not been very good.”
They’d come out of the toughest part of their schedule without a win, with their in-state rival on the docket.
“It’s the Big East,” Rice said. “You’re scratching and clawing. You’re trying to work yourself out of a rut here and every time people are throwing more dirt on you, it’s hard to shake it off and step up.”
Seton Hall wouldn’t make it any easier.
The fellow Big East bottom feeder was in a similar position as Rutgers, with the Pirates on a five-game losing streak.
And so, the Garden State’s best basketball rivalry was about two teams just tyring to get off the schneid. Get back on track before the season becomes completely derailed.
“Things got crazy,” senior forward Austin Johnson said. “That losing streak, it wears on you mentally.”
And it almost continued. Rutgers saw a once commanding 12-point lead with a four minutes remaining dwindle down to as little as one in the final seconds before escaping the RAC with a 57-55 victory.
“Me and my teammates were joking early, we feel like in the last two minutes at the RAC, people are shooting 100%. They always seem to make three-pointers or long distance shots,” Johnson said. “So that was the longest two minutes of my life and I just wanted the game to be over.”
As it ended, a collective weight was lifted off the Scarlet Knights shoulders.
“It feels good to get a victory and take the pressure off your shoulders so to speak,” Rice said. “Maybe now we’ll play a little looser and a little better.”
And turn their season around. Something the team feels they have time to do.
“There’s a lot of time left,” senior wing Dane Miller said. “We got what, six games left? We just need to stick together and focus and worry about making each other better and making the right plays and we can make something happen. Which we will.”
That confidence is for good reason. Four of the six games Rutgers has left are against teams in the bottom half of the Big East. Teams of the same caliber as the Scarlet Knights.
First, they have to make sure they use the win over Seton Hall as a spring board.
“We have to build upon this,” Rice said. “This has to be a confidence booster.”
And be the initial step in Rice’s mantra for the final month of the season. Winning the month of February.
“We have a lot more work to do. It’s still doable. It’s still possible,” Rice said. “I still have goals for this team, but this team has to focus on Thursday. On getting better at practice. On attacking some of its weaknesses. And see what we can do against a very tough and underrated DePaul team.”