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January 9, 2013

Rutgers wins road thriller over St. John's

NEW YORK--So many times during its Big East tenure, when faced with the opportunity to grab a win and momentum in conference play, Rutgers has come up short, stifling whatever progress the program had made through that point in the season.

Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, they bucked that trend for once. Led by clutch plays down the stretch on both ends of the floor from Dane Miller, the Scarlet Knights exited Manhattan with a 58-56 win over St. John's.

Rutgers (11-3) advanced to 2-1 in Big East play, just the third time the program has ever hit that benchmark. At the moment, the team sits on the coveted "right side of the board" in its locker room, which designates they are in the top half of the conference.

"Good teams grind those type of games out," said head coach Mike Rice. "I keep on telling our guys 'Why not us?' I know there's some top teams in this league, but the rest of the league…why not us? We have some depth, we have some talent now."

With his team trailing 52-51, Miller, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half, began leaving his stamp on the action. He connected on a short bank shot with 3:04 to play to put RU ahead. After an empty Red Storm possession, Miller tapped in Myles Mack's miss on a fast break to put stretch the advantage to 55-52 at the 2:29 mark.

Red Storm guard D'Angelo Harrison (game-high 20 points) was able to get to the line down the stretch, but hit just 2-of-4 free throws, which prevented the Johnnies from overtaking Rutgers. After Mack rimmed out on a three-pointer with less than a minute to play, Harrison penetrated into the lane and drew a reach-in foul on Miller with 33.1 remaining. But he could only convert the latter of two free throws, leaving Rutgers in front by one.

Mack, who trails only teammate Eli Carter for the Big East lead in free-throw percentage, knocked home two from the charity stripe to boost the lead back to 3, but after a Jakarr Sampson lay-up and a missed free throw from Mike Poole, Harrison had the ball with a chance to be the hero.

That's where Miller re-entered the fray. He picked up Harrison mid-possession and forced the talented guard to launch a 3-pointer over his outstretched hands that fell short and into the hands of Poole.

"When they did the ball screen, we switched. I figured I'd back up a little bit and make him shoot over me," Miller said. "..I figured if I could get in his face and make him shoot from out there, it would be a tough shot."

Given a second chance, Poole made one of two free throws, and after Sampson's desperation trey was off-target, Rutgers could exhale and celebrate its hard-fought win, a crucial result with Cincinnati coming to the RAC on Saturday.

"There were smiles on their faces [in the last two minutes]," said Rice. "I don't know what was taking place, but they were smiling. They were calm, as I always say, comfortable in chaos. It's nice to have guys who have been there."

Austin Johnson has been there, through three losing seasons in his first three years. Tonight he used his savvy to score 10 points and hold down the interior when Wally Judge fouled out with 3:31 to play.

"I know for me and for Dane, this is the first time we've been there [the winning side of the board]," Johnson said. "We just want to keep on winning and keep on doing something that hasn't been done here in such a long time."

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