PISCATAWAY – The end of Rutgers basketball’s NIT opener was a microcosm of its 2022-23 season.
The Scarlet Knights couldn’t finish.
After squandering a five-point lead with 30 seconds left in regulation, they fell to Hofstra 88-86 in overtime, a brutal finish to a sensational game witnessed by a rocking home crowd of 5,000 fans.
Rutgers concludes the season with a 19-15 record after suffering a stunning snub from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Hofstra (25-8) gave a great account of itself, shooting 57 percent from the field and making big shot after big shot down the stretch despite losing star guard Aaron Estrada to a foul-out.
The drama of the game was matched by the drama of Rutgers’ postgame press conference — a 26-minute therapy session during which head coach Steve Pikiell and senior guards Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy shed tears, defended each other and the program’s progress, and seemed genuinely heartbroken that it all ended so abruptly.
“I was worried (after Selection Sunday) and they came ready to play,” Pikiell said. “It was a great college basketball game, I know we didn’t win, I understand that, but for these guys, a huge thank you.”
He put his arms around McConnell to his right and Mulcahy to his left.
“I love this team,” the coach said. “I know we didn’t win enough games, I got all that, but this team has been unbelievable to coach, and that’s the sad thing, that I won’t be able to 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 final collegiate game, the postgrad guard surpassed Eddie Jordan’s program record for career steals, 220, that had stood since 1977. McConnell recorded two thefts on the night to end up with 221.
In fairness to Jordan, that mark was set in four seasons while McConnell is in year five, though he did miss nearly two dozen games due to injuries over the years. Either way, it’s a major accomplishment, and there’s no doubt Jordan will send his congratulations along to the new standard-bearer.
“I’m lucky, to do that at a school like this,” McConnell said. “I’m blessed to be able to stamp my name forever at Rutgers. This place is definitely home.”
The record was more than ceremonial, too. As usual, McConnell drew the toughest defensive assignment in Estrada. The explosive Hofstra senior and Woodbury native came in averaging 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Yet the favorite to win the Haggerty Award — which goes to the best player in the metropolitan area — fouled out with seven minutes remaining, having scored 13 on 6-of-13 shooting, with four rebounds, four assists and five turnovers.
It was a fitting curtain call for a program pillar.
“Caleb came to me young, wasn’t quite sure of himself, leaves here our all-time steals leader, graduates, is unbelievable 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 great winners and one of the all-time great defenders.”
2. Hofstra, take a bow
The Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champions proved a few things. First, that good mid-majors are every bit 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 bracket.
Their offensive acumen was not surprising if you watched them at all this season. The grit they showed, however, was eye-opening. Speedy Claxton’s crew took some roundhouses to the jaw and slugged back every time.
“It was a high-level game and if you look at the field as a whole, there’s some high-level teams,” Claxton said.
3. Derek Simpson is ready for the keys
The fab freshman out of Lenape High School got his third straight start and once again delivered. Simpson tallied 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting and handed out four assists. In potential sign of things to come, Rutgers put the ball in his hands on the final possession of overtime, trailing by two. Simpson put the ball on the rim but it rolled out as time expired.
If there was one positive about how the season ended, it’s that Rutgers’ offense opened up significantly once Pikiell enlarged Simpson’s role. Next season, he should be given the keys.
4. Crowd was superb
On 48 hours’ notice, in bad weather, Rutgers fans came through 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 it could to provide one.
“I’m so proud Rutgers nation came out to today to appreciate these guys,” Pikiell said.
It was truly a night for the real fans, and those fans delivered. Even at the end, as Rutgers trudged off the court, a thousand or so faithful who remained gave them a round of applause for a hard-fought season.
“Great environment,” Hofstra’s Claxton said. “I’m kind of happy they had a packed house. Made it easier for my guys to get up and play.”
5. The reckoning
Plenty of personnel decisions lie ahead. Will junior center Cliff Omoruyi explore a potential pro career? Will Mulcahy and Aundre Hyatt return for the final seasons of eligibility? Which reserves, if any, will move on? Who can Pikiell bring in, aside from well-regarded recruit Gavin Griffiths, who can provide this program with desperately needed depth (the lack of which was the biggest reason for the Scarlet Knights’ stagger to the finish line)?
It’s overly harsh and unfair to call this season a failure. After Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. moved on last spring, this was probably about the right level of achievement for this roster. The reload was ahead of schedule before glue guy Mawot Mag got hurt in early February, and things sputtered from there.
Pikiell’s extraordinary press conference Tuesday night, during which he ticked off the numerous accomplishments of his senior class on and off the court, was a plea for perspective about how far things have come.
“We’ve raised expectations here, and they have,” he said of his players. “With that comes attention and comes scrutiny, and I’m proud of the way they handled it.”
He added, “I know it wasn’t the win total that everyone wanted, but you know I’m proud of this group and it is tough. It’s a tough day when you end the season with a great group of guys. They left it all on the court. Give Hofstra credit. They got us by one possession, but it was a great college basketball game in a great environment.”
McConnell, who spoke for nearly as long as Pikiell, said of his coaches and teammates, “the love we have for each other, it’s unbreakable.”
He seemed reluctant to stop talking for fear that it would signal 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-picture note, the way only a wizened fifth-year veteran could.
“This program is left in great hands,” he said. “I know (Pikiell) is going to get more great kids in here. I can’t wait to see what this program is going to be like.”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.