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March 13, 2013

Rutgers bows out of Big East Tournament

NEW YORK - All season long, as Rutgers produced several close calls but few wins in conference play, head coach Mike Rice lauded his team's propensity to continue fighting.

Tonight, they did that again, rallying from a 16-point halftime deficit to within five points on four occasions. But again, they could not overcome the whole margin, falling to No.6 seed Notre Dame 69-61 in the second round of the 2013 Big East Tournament.

One player's fight stood about above the rest, as senior big man Austin Johnson scored a career-high 18 points, 15 in the second half. When he exited the court with 25 seconds left, Johnson received a rousing ovation from the Rutgers faithful in what may have been his final career game.

"Everything hit me when I was walking off the court," Johnson said. "…It was my last time playing with these guys possibly. Everything came to me at once, and it was a really crazy feeling."

Unfortunately, Johnson's tallies were offset by 20 from Notre Dame wing Pat Connaughton, who hit on 6-of-8 three-pointers and answered the bell with a key basket every time Rutgers threatened. Too often, Connaughton's shots came as a result of mental or physical lapses by the Rutgers defense.

"Losing sight [of him]. When you're running and trapping and doing some things," Rice said. "I would say, out of the ten shots [he took], seven we just lost him. You can't lose Pat Connaughton. Of anybody, you can't lost him."

Of course, the fact it came down to losing Connaughton several times was a testament to Rutgers' ability to fight back from a 33-17 halftime deficit.

Twenty of Rutgers' 66 points from the first meeting between the teams was on the bench in the form of an injured Eli Carter, and it showed in the opening 20 minutes as the Scarlet Knights shot just 29.6 percent from the field.

In the first frame, on both ends of the court, Notre Dame's size advantage was apparent. The Irish out-rebounded Rutgers 23-15, limiting second opportunities and making the Scarlet Knights work for every defensive board on the other end.

But things changed after a spirited locker words from Rice and several players.

"I just questioned their heart. You know the things they do in coaching," Rice said. "Question their pride. Austin spoke up, and I think Jerome spoke up. And again, they responded."

The Scarlet Knights reeled off a 9-0 run to begin the second half, trimming the margin to five for the first time before Jerian Grant and Connaughton hit back-to-back threes.

Connaughton would answer three more times when his team's lead was down to five, and with the score 59-53 just under three minutes, Grant faced up Mike Poole in the corner and drilled the dagger from beyond the arc.

Myles Mack finished with 18 points in defeat, while Notre Dame forward Tom Knight, a bench player until Scott Martin suffered a season-ending knee injury, chipped in 18 points of his own in the win.

The Fighing Irish move on to tomorrow night's quarterfinals against third-seeded Marquette.

Meanwhile, Rice hinted post-game that Rutgers' season might not yet be finished. While the NCAA Tournament and NIT are out of the question, the CBI and CIT have both made overtures to the Scarlet Knights which are being considered.

"We'll discuss some things," Rice said in his press conference. "I know some of the secondary tournaments had called and gauged our interest, and that's something we'll look at as a program. Do we want to do that, or is this going to be our last game. That's just something we're going to discuss."

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