A long-awaited resurgence could be coming to Rutgers — as unthinkable disaster seems to be approaching for Seton Hall.
Playing in front of the largest Rutgers Athletic Center crowd (8,329) in nearly 18 years, the Scarlet Knights stunningly scored the first 14 points of Saturday’s Garden State Hardwood Classic and claimed one of the best wins of the Steve Pikiell era with a 68-48 decision over the 22nd-ranked Pirates, who lost star guard Myles Powell to a concussion that kept him in the locker room after halftime.
After losing five of the past six meetings with Seton Hall, Rutgers (8-3) followed its Wednesday win over Wisconsin by improving to 8-0 at the RAC this season, led by Ron Harper Jr.’s 18 points. Under the fourth-year coach Pikiell — the only coach to take Stony Brook to the NCAA Tournament — the Scarlet Knights are producing levels of optimism unfamiliar to a generation.
The Big East-favorite Pirates, who were expected to cruise to a fifth straight NCAA Tournament under Kevin Willard, no longer look like a lock to dance. Seton Hall (6-4), which was playing its first game since losing Sandro Mamukelashvili to a broken wrist, is in danger of losing three straight games, with No. 4 Maryland visiting on Thursday.
This rout began when Rutgers first touched the ball. The Scarlet Knights’ initial possession found Harper finishing an alley-oop from Myles Johnson (eight points, 12 rebounds, two blocks, three steals). Geo Baker followed with a 3-pointer, then hit Harper with a pass from midcourt for another alley-oop.
Newly returned Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano stood courtside, smiling, with the Scarlet Knights up two touchdowns (14-0) and the Pirates unable to make any of their first nine shots.
“We’ve developed a nice home-court advantage here,” Pikiell said before the game. “The guys look forward to these games. That’s why they come to places like this. … To have this opportunity at home is a great thing for our program.”
The Rutgers student section was always standing, always screaming, often bouncing. Simple defensive rebounds sparked thunderous ovations. Silence wasn’t available on Saturday’s menu.
An early timeout called by Willard paused the carnage, but couldn’t stop the bleeding. Seton Hall’s first points didn’t come until Anthony Nelson’s banked in a 3-pointer six minutes into the action. Powell — the nation’s sixth-leading scorer — missed his first five field goals and first two free throws, as the Pirates opened 1-for-17 from the field, including 1-for-10 from behind the arc.
Rutgers’ attack was as balanced as the noise emanating from every section, leading to a mind-boggling 26-5 lead. Willard stood shell-shocked, motionless, with his hands on his hips. Pikiell ran up and down the sideline, crouching alongside his players on defense.
“This program is not broke,” Schiano said during a fiery halftime speech. “This program just needs a little juice. A little life.”
The Pirates cut the deficit to 36-23 at halftime, but any hope of a comeback disappeared along with Powell, who never returned to the sideline in the second half. Seton Hall’s offensive struggles predictably continued without its star. The Pirates scored just five points through the first seven minutes of the second half.
Rutgers stretched its lead to 22. The deficit never touched single-digits. The end of the bench was emptied.
The Big Ten will have a new punchline. The Big East will have a new favorite.