WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. – Mike Rice no longer coaches in the Northeast Conference. After taking Robert Morris to three postseason appearances in three seasons, he moved on to Rutgers of the Big East this spring.
But that doesn't mean he's forgotten about the NEC. Despite little national recognition, the 12-team league has the potential to pull off a stunner every now and again. And on Saturday night, it almost happened again.
Mike Coburn scored 18 points and Jonathan Mitchell added 16 as Rutgers broke open what was a nip-and-tuck game and overwhelmed Monmouth (N.J.) 79-56 on Saturday night, the Scarlet Knights' fifth consecutive victory and Rice's first on the road.
"Monmouth hit shots, and they played with an edge for 30 minutes," Rice said. "We definitely got punched, but we didn't come apart, we stuck to the plan, and maybe, Monmouth wore down at the end."
Rutgers (8-2) has won eight of nine and improved to 3-1 vs. New Jersey schools, having only lost to Princeton 78-73 on opening night. There was a sense of familiarity to the night for Rice, who lives in nearby Little Silver, N.J., and is 2-0 at Monmouth's new Multipurpose Activities Center in less than a year.
"We fought and we played hard defensively," Monmouth coach Dave Calloway said. "But you have to give them credit. They made shots at the end."
R.J. Rutledge led the Hawks (4-7) with 17 points and Ed Waite had 13 in the opener of what is a rare Big East back-to-back situation for this NEC program. Monmouth will play host to No. 10 Villanova on Wednesday.
"This is a step forward," Rice said. "We had a plan, we stuck to the plan, and we persevered."
Though it wasn't easy. After trailing 37-31 at the break, the Hawks, in fact, took the lead at 41-39 four minutes into the second half in a game that saw the lead change 11 times, with four ties.
But Gilvydas Biruta's slam with 12:08 left in the second half gave Rutgers a 52-44 lead, brought the road fans to their feet, forced a Monmouth timeout, and for the first time all night, put the Hawks in a hole they couldn't get out of.
Dane Miller had 14 points, eight rebounds and five assists for the Scarlet Knights, who had four players reach double figures.
"We hung with them most of the game," said Rutledge, who had three of Monmouth's 18 turnovers. "But the turnovers caught up to us in the end. We had the energy going for a while, but it's still a loss."
There will be tougher tests awaiting Rutgers, especially as it enters Big East play next month. The Scarlet Knights will need to play better than they did for several stretches vs. the Hawks. But all told, Rutgers scored the game's final 13 points, and Rice — trying to turn around a team that went 15-17 last year — will take eight wins in 10 tries more often than not.
"We're getting better," said Rice, whose team plays host to St. Peter's on Thursday. "We don't look that far, we look to the next game. The next game is always our biggest game. But the players are buying in, and they have the ability to change. That's been impressive."
The Hawks, meanwhile, must now prepare for the Wildcats, a team they lost to in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Villanova improved to 9-1 with a 78-59 win over Delaware on Saturday night.
"We'll go back and watch tape and prepare," Calloway said. "Our problem is, we can't simulate in practice some of the talent that Villanova has on the floor."