While a winning record in the Big East after five games might not mean much to the perennial powers in the conference, it's huge for Rutgers.
In fact, it's the Scarlet Knights' best start in the league since 1999-2000.
Wally Judge hit 7 of 8 shots and scored 14 points and Martino Brock had a game-tying 3-point shot attempt rim out just before the buzzer as Rutgers took a major step forward with a 70-67 win over South Florida 70-67 on Thursday night.
"I'm happy with this win, because this game last year we probably would have lost," senior Dane Miller said after Rutgers (12-4 3-2) improved to 8-2 at home. "It's all (about) how more mature we are, how much closer we are together. We understand every game is going to be a dogfight. I really don't like blowouts, myself. They're less fun."
Rutgers won this one by pounding the ball inside in the second half and making 17 of 33 shots, or 51.5 percent.
"Classic Big East game," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "Neither team wanted to blink, neither team wanted to give in. I thought we found a way to win, and that was scoring in the paint. Whether it was offensive rebounding or assists from Jerome Seagears attacking the paint, we found a way in the second half to grind one out.
"Again, if you watch Big East games, that's what every Big East game seems to be. It's not a thing of beauty, but you have to find a way. "
Myles Mack and Eli Carter added 13 points apiece for the Scarlet Knights, who nearly blew an eight-point lead in the final 3:24.
Jawanza Poland scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half for South Florida (9-7, 0-4), which lost its fourth straight game. Anthony Collins and Victor Rudd added 11 points apiece for the Bulls, who made their first NCAA tournament appearance a year ago.
Rutgers seemed to be in control when Carter, who spent crucial second-half minutes on the bench with four fouls, nailed a 3-pointer to give the Scarlet Knights a 68-60 lead.
Rudd, however, answered with a 3-pointer, and Poland scored on a spectacular alley-oop dunk, grabbing a pass that was behind him and jamming it home to cut the lead to 68-65.
Carter's layup gave Rutgers its final points with 1:48 to go, but Collins closed the gap to 70-67 with a floater with 1:26 left.
After turnovers on both ends of the court, Seagears missed a 3-pointer for Rutgers with the shot clock running out with 10 seconds to go.
Poland got the rebound and passed it to Collins, who eventually threw the ball upcourt to Brock. He had Poland open in the corner, but he elected to take the shot and it just missed.
South Florida coach Stan Heath considered calling a timeout after Poland grabbed the rebound, but he noticed that Rutgers was out of sync getting back on defense.
"As Martino came down, I know he had a good look, but he had Poland wide open as well," Heath said. "That's why I held on to the timeout. Poland had a hot hand and I thought we were going to make one more pass. He had a great look as well, so I don't fault that shot at all."
Rice recalled that Rutgers twice led South Florida in the final 45 seconds last year and found a way to give it away. This time they didn't.
Mack ignited and capped an 11-2 spurt at the start of the second half with baskets to give the Scarlet Knights a 38-32 lead that they never lost.
South Florida stayed close for most of the half, drawing to within 45-43 on a 3-pointer by Rudd with 12:47 to go and 56-54 on two free throws by Collins with 7:33 to go.
South Florida, which was limited to 38 points in a 26-point loss to now-No. 1 Louisville less than a week ago, scored 30 in the opening half against Rutgers in taking a three-point lead.
The lead had a lot to do with the Bulls' shooting. After being held to 26.7 percent from the field by the Cardinals, they converted 14 of 26 against the Scarlet Knights in the opening 20 minutes, or nearly 54 percent. Three of the 14 baskets came on alley-oops to a baseline runner and 22 points were scored in the paint.
The 14 first-half baskets were two more than they had in the game against Louisville.
"I think our team kind of showed who they are tonight," Heath said. "We were 0-3 and on the road at Rutgers. Some teams might have just showed up, and we didn't. We played. Our focus is on getting better. We haven't been healthy all year, playing shorthanded, and our team knows that. It's more or less let's just keep improving. We'll win games if we continue to play where we are now."
The game had an interesting start. Referee Karl Hess was knocked over accidentally by Judge seconds after the opening jump ball. He got up with a smile.
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