PISCATAWAY – The end of Rutgers basketball’s NIT opener is a microcosm of its 2022-23 season.
The Scarlet Knights didn’t finish.
After blowing a five-point lead with 30 seconds left in regulation, the Scarlet Knights fell to Hofstra 88-86 in overtime, a brutal finish to a thrilling game in front of a roaring home crowd of 5,000 fans.
Rutgers finished the season with a 19-15 record after suffering a resounding snub from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Hofstra (25-8) gave a good account of itself, shooting 57 percent from the field and making big shot after big shot down the stretch.
1-Record for McConnell
On the same day he was named a finalist for the Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year, Caleb McConnell etched his name in the Rutgers record book. He surpassed Eddie Jordan’s program record for career steals, 220, which had stood since 1977. McConnell recorded two steals on the night to finish with 221.
In fairness to Jordan, that mark was set in four seasons while McConnell was a fifth-year postgrad, though he missed nearly two dozen games due to injuries over the years. Either way, it’s a huge achievement, and Jordan will no doubt send his congratulations to the new standard-bearer.
The record is more than ceremonial. As usual, McConnell drew the toughest defense in assigning Aaron Estrada. The star Hofstra senior and Woodbury native averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Yes the favorite to win the Haggerty Award — which goes to the best player in the metropolitan area — fouled out with seven minutes remaining, scoring 13 on 6-of-13 shooting, with four rebounds, four assists and five turnovers.
2-Hofstra, you’re full
The regular season champions of the Colonial Athletic Association gave an excellent account of themselves. No wonder, if you watched them all this season. Pride took a few punches and punched back. They moved the ball and shot it well. They showed courage. They delivered a strong reminder that the NIT is full of quality teams.
3-Derek Simpson, again
The fab freshman from Lenape High School earned his third straight start and once again delivered. Simpson scored 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting and dished out four assists. In a potential sign of things to come, Rutgers put the ball in its hands on the final possession, trailing by two. Simpson put the ball on the rim but it rolled as time expired.
If there’s one positive about how the season ended, it’s that Rutgers’ offense ran better because Steve Pikiell stepped up his role. Next season, he should be handed the keys to the offense.
With 48 hours notice, in inclement weather, Rutgers fans came out for their team. The student section was two-thirds full, and everyone made themselves heard from the start. The crowd understood that the team needed a lift and did everything possible to provide it.
It was a real night for real fans, and those fans delivered.
The reckoning. Rutgers’ season is over.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball scene since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at email@example.com.