Everything was cruising. Rutgers was up 13 at halftime. Kadeem Jack was back and skying above the rim. The St. Francis Terriers were turning the ball over repeatedly. The Brooklyn based team was so good at traveling, it seemed they were too cool for dribbling.
And then the 2013-14 Scarlet Knights reared their ugly heads.
St. Francis came out and pestered Rutgers into blowing the lead in the first ten minutes of the second half. Their press rattled Rutgers into fast shots, bad possessions, and poor decisions. But Myles Mack, Junior Etou, and the rejuvenated Jack refused to let Rutgers succumb.
In the final minute, Mack--who scored a game high 25--got fouled and made both shots. Rutgers took a 2 point lead 75-73 with 20 seconds left. And that's when the difference between last year and this took hold. St. Francis had the ball and plenty of time to make a play, but the new focus on defense for the Scarlet Knights forced the Terriers to panic. They were unable to run their set play. They gave the ball up and a guard they didn't plan on taking the last shot took a long three. It was off and Etou brought down the rebound. He was also fouled.
He made 1 of 2, and Jack pulled down the offensive rebound on the second shot. Game over.
So, Rutgers is 2-1, and everyone takes a deep breath. The first 3 games haven't been perfect, but they've been better than Rutgers offered last year. The defense is markedly better. They held the Terriers to under 40% shooting in the first half, and St. Francis turned the ball over 21 times the entire game. Mack had 8 (EIGHT) steals, and climbed to six on the all-time list.
But, at the same time, it appears Rutgers is what we thought they were. An athletic, flawed team. Both Greg Lewis and Jack were in foul trouble the entire night, but Jordan never felt confident enough to go to Shaquille Doorson or Dwayne Foreman for extended stretches. Mike Williams, however, continued his unselfish, solid defensive play. While Williams didn't score much, he was in until their was a minute left in the game, and clearly frustrated the Terriers defensively.
Offense was a problem in the second half. The passing and off the ball movement that Rutgers showed in the first half went away in the second. The lack of a true point guard hurt, and Mack--who was on fire--tried to do it all himself. In the second half, the shots didn't fall, the fouls weren't called as much, and Rutgers didn't work good possessions. Too much one on one and quick shots. It is something Rutgers will need to work on. There are 3 seniors on this team. Be patient and work your sets.
It's November, and a team doesn't improve overnight. But there are signs and pieces this team is getting better, and Eddie Jordan is fixing the track that will take the Scarlet Knights to the right one. They play St. Peter's Tuesday night.
That will be another night to keep the demons of the previous season away.