PISCATAWAY – The end of Rutgers basketball’s NIT opener was a microcosm of the 2022-23 season.
The Scarlet Knights couldn’t finish it.
After squandering a five-point lead with 30 seconds remaining, they fell to Hofstra 88-86 in overtime, a ruthless end to a sensational game witnessed by an amazing home crowd of 5,000 fans.
Rutgers finishes the season with a 19-15 record after a stunning NCAA Tournament selection committee disapproval. Hofstra (25-8) put on a great picture of himself, shooting 57 percent from the field and making big shot after big shot on the stretch, despite losing star guard Aaron Estrada to a foul.
The drama of the game was matched by the drama of the Rutgers post-game press conference — a 26-minute therapy session in which head coach Steve Pikiell and senior guards Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy shed tears, defending each other and the progress of the program, and seemed genuinely heartbroken that it all ended so abruptly.
“I was worried (after selection Sunday) and they came ready to play,” said Pikiell. .”
He wrapped his arms around McConnell on his right and Mulcahy on his left.
“I love this team,” said the coach. “I know we haven’t won enough games, I all have, but this team is incredible to coach, and that’s the sad thing, I won’t be able to coach.” keep coaching them.”
1. Record for McConnell
On the same day he was named a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year, McConnell etched his name into the Rutgers record book. In his last collegiate game, the postgraduate guard surpassed Eddie Jordan’s program record for career theft, 220, which had stood since 1977. McConnell recorded two thefts on the night, finishing on 221.
To be fair to Jordan, that figure was put in four seasons, while McConnell is in year five, though he missed nearly two dozen games over the years due to injuries. Either way, it’s a major achievement and there’s no doubt Jordan will be sending his congratulations to the new flag bearer.
“I’m lucky enough to do that at a school like this,” McConnell said. “I am blessed to be able to stamp my name on Rutgers forever. This place is definitely home.”
The record was also more than ceremonial. As usual, McConnell pulled off the heaviest defensive assignment in Estrada. The explosive Hofstra senior and Woodbury resident averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. But the favorite to win the Haggerty Award – which goes to the best player in the metropolitan area – fell out with seven minutes left after going 13 on 6-of-13 shooting, with four rebounds, four assists and five revenue.
It was a fitting curtain call for a program pillar.
“Caleb came to me young, not quite sure of himself, leave here our all-time steals leader, college graduate, is incredible in the community… the surgeries, the bad back,” Pikiell said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. Will leave here as one of the big winners and one of the best defenders of all time.”
2. Hofstra, take a bow
The regular season champions of the Colonial Athletic Association have proven a few things. First, that good mid-majors are just as good, if not better, than their high-major counterparts. Second, that the NIT is filled with quality teams. Third, the Pride were underseeded in this group.
Their offensive acumen wasn’t surprising if you saw them at all this season. However, the grit they showed was dazzling. Speedy Claxton’s crew took a few roundhouses and hit back each time.
“It was a high level game and if you look at the field as a whole there are high level teams,” said Claxton.
3. Derek Simpson is ready for the keys
The stellar Lenape High School freshman got his third consecutive start and performed again. Simpson scored 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting and dished out four assists. As a possible sign of things to come, Rutgers put the ball in his hands in the last possession of overtime, trailing by two. Simpson put the ball on the rim, but it rolled out over time.
If there was one positive thing about the end of the season, it’s that the Rutgers offense kicked off significantly as Pikiell expanded Simpson’s role. He should get the keys next season.
4. Crowd was great
With 48 hours notice, in inclement weather, Rutgers fans came through for their team. The student section was two-thirds full and everyone made themselves heard from the start. The audience understood that the team needed a lift and did everything they could to give it.
“I’m so proud that the Rutgers nation came out today to appreciate these guys,” Pikiell said.
It really was a night for the real fans, and those fans lived up to it. Even at the end, as Rutgers trudged off the field, a thousand loyal stragglers applauded them for a hard-fought season.
“Great environment,” said Claxton van Hofstra. “I’m kind of glad they had a full house. Made it easier for my boys to get up and play.”
5. The reckoning
There are still many personnel decisions ahead. Will junior center Cliff Omoruyi explore a potential pro career? Will Mulcahy and Aundre Hyatt return for their final seasons of eligibility? What reserves, if any, will continue? Who can bring in Pikiell, besides well-known recruit Gavin Griffiths, who can give this program some much-needed depth (the lack of which was the biggest reason for the Scarlet Knights stumbling to the finish line)?
It’s overly harsh and unfair to call this season a failure. After Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. moved last spring, this was probably about the right level of performance for this roster. The reload was ahead of schedule before glueman Mawot Mag was injured in early February, and it sputtered from there.
Pikiell’s extraordinary press conference Tuesday night, in which he ticked off his senior league’s many achievements on and off the field, was a plea for perspective on how far things have come.
“We raised expectations here, and they have,” he said of his players. “With that comes attention and control, and I’m proud of the way they handled it.”
He added: “I know it wasn’t the total number of wins everyone wanted, but you know I’m proud of this group and it’s tough. It’s a tough day when you finish the season with a great group of guys. They left it all on the field. Give Hofstra credit. They got us on one possession, but it was a great college basketball game in a great environment.”
McConnell, who spoke for almost as long as Pikiell, said of his coaches and teammates, “the love we have for each other is unbreakable.”
He seemed reluctant to stop talking for fear it would mean the end of his time in a Rutgers jersey.
“It’s hard because this is it for me,” he said.
But McConnell ended on a positive, big note, the way only a wizened fifth-year veteran could.
“This program is in good hands,” he said. “I know (Pikiell) is going to have more great kids here. I can’t wait to see what this program is going to look like.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and college basketball since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.