Mike Rice began to talk to the media and stopped. Started again, and looked at his water bottle. Took a long sip. Then tried to talk again. The emotions were welling over.
Once again, Rutgers played great team ball, played great defense, but couldn't hold on. Their offense faltered down the stretch, scoring one field goal in the last 7 minutes or so. Myles Mack missed two free throws, including the front end of a one and one. Down two, Jerome Seagears drove to the hoop and put up a point blank shot. It went halfway down and bounced out. Dane Miller, the senior, got the rebound and got fouled. He missed both foul shots.
It was that kind of night.
And earlier in the game, it felt different than the other nights. Rutgers was playing smart ball. They didn't give up a 19-0 run. They didn't give up a 24-0 run, and early on there wasn't a superstar player that was they couldn't handle. No, this felt like a night for some RAC magic.
But Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue came to play as well. And, methodically, they cut into the 12 point second half lead. And with three minutes left, Rutgers was only up 3. Then Marquette hit some tough shots. And were up 2.
But Marquette couldn't close out either. A few missed free throws, and Rutgers had 30 seconds to tie the game, or even take the lead. Rutgers moved the ball up the court confidently, and rolled right into their offense, despite the fact that Coach Rice had two timeouts in his pocket.
The crowd started to buzz a little. Maybe, just once this season, there'd be a little RAC magic?
A lane opened up for Seagears, and he turned to start to drive to the hoop.
And the ball went off his shoe, over the midcourt line. Game over.
It wasn't a perfect game for the Scarlet Knights, with 2 over and back calls, and Mack fouling Cadougan on a 3 point shot late in the game--and late in the shot clock.
The Knights had put everything they could into this game. They wanted.
And so Mike Rice teared up, in the press conference. The desire on his face was evident. The hurt in his heart was too. He wants Rutgers to succeed so badly. He loves the effort his team is giving him.
But it's not there yet.
One has to wonder, is this rock bottom (again) for Mike Rice and this program? Can the rise from the ashes begin on Friday night against Seton Hall?
Rutgers is going to have a favorable draw in the Big East Tournament. There will be a chance, like every team has, to make some noise.
Right now, everything feels wrong. And one could see it on Rice's face.