PISCATAWAY, N.J. – With his team trailing by six at halftime, Rutgers coach Mike Rice alerted his players that they would be practicing at 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve.
"Basically that was a wake-up call," guard James Beatty said after Rutgers avoided an upset with a 55-52 victory over Saint Peter's 55-52 on Thursday night.
Even after rallying from a 40-28 deficit with 16 minutes to play, Rice wasn't satisfied down the stretch, threatening his players with two practices over the holiday break.
"Maybe that was the great coaching that inspired them," Rice said.
Mike Poole had 14 points off the bench, including two clutch free throws with 17 seconds remaining, and fellow freshman Gilvydas Biruta scored 11 for the Scarlet Knights (9-2), who were given the next two days to savor the victory before gearing up for a Dec. 28 test against North Carolina at Madison Square Garden.
"We were halfway out the door thinking about Christmas," said Poole, who equaled a career-high by shooting 6 for 7 from the field. "Everybody's mindset really wasn't here. Saint Peter's is a good team, but they're in the (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) and we're a Big East team. We needed to be way more urgent in the second half."
Austin Carroll scored five points during a 13-3 run that pulled Rutgers within 43-41 with nine minutes left. The Peacocks' Darius Conley halted the run with a conventional 3-point play, but the Scarlet Knights scored the next seven points, including a jumper from Jonathan Mitchell, to pull ahead 48-46 with 4:18 remaining.
Rutgers squandered a chance to ice the win as Mike Coburn missed two free throws with 10 seconds remaining, but Saint Peter's wasn't able to get a 3-point shot off before the buzzer.
Steven Samuels scored 14 points for the Peacocks (7-5), who played without leading scorer Wesley Jenkins and top rebounder Ryan Bacon due to injuries.
"We played very hard and gave ourselves a chance to win in the last couple of minutes," said Saint Peter's coach John Dunne, whose team is considered one of the favorites to win the MAAC this season. "I know we had the big lead early in the second half, but they're a Big East team and we made it a game without our two top guys so we feel good about our effort."
The Scarlet Knights won their sixth straight game despite shooting 12 for 24 from the free-throw line in the second half.
"Whether it's missed free throws, turnovers, lack of execution, we just kept getting in our own way," said Rice, who matched the best start for a Rutgers first-year coach since Donald S. White began his tenure 10-2 in 1945-46. "Just a frustrating night, but very fortunate to come away with a victory."