PISCATAWAY — Eli Carter got a close look at Cincinnati’s new black uniforms.
The sophomore guard from Rutgers had two and sometimes three Bearcats around him, and their defensive effort resulted in a rough night for Carter.
The Scarlet Knights’ leading scorer at 16.7 points per game — a figure good enough for eighth in the Big East — finished 1-for-11 from the field, including missing all six 3-point attempts, as Rutgers’ two-game winning streak was snapped by No. 21 Cincinnati, 68-58 on Saturday.
“When you’re the leading scorer and he has the type that he did; I think he just settled,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. “When you’re the leading scorer and you are off, you’ve got to get to the paint and create, either contact or opportunities for others and he’s not doing that right now.
“Cincinnati, wherever he was going, they had two or three guys on him, and now we have to take advantage of what he can do for us,” Rice continued. “But he’s got to get off the ball and create some opportunities for others. It’s hard because he realizes he has to score for us. But right now he’s taking low percentage shots and not getting fouled and that’s a tough equation.”
This was Carter’s second straight tough shooting game. He was 3-of-14 from the field in a two-point win over St. John’s, making him 4-of-25 over the last two games.
“They did a great job of scouting. I didn’t really get points off our offense,” Carter said. “They’ve been cheating our plays and stuff like that. I just have to find some counters.'
“I just have to make shots when I’m open. Nothing different. Obviously I have to play better. It’s a huge learning experience. We let this one slip away.”
The Bearcats snapped their own two-game losing streak by playing defense the way they had played defense before the slump that saw them drop three of four and fall from a No. 8 ranking in the Top 25.
With Cashmere Wright leading the way with 23 points while not committing a turnover as he ran the offense, the Bearcats stayed unbeaten on the road.
“Coming in Coach (Mick Cronin) preached that we lost two in a row and we can’t lose three,” Wright said. “If we’re going to get where we want to go, we’re going to have play defense.
“At the pregame meal I told everybody that if we can control the game from the start we can control the whole game,” Wright added.
He was right.
Cincinnati led 27-15 after a first half that saw the Bearcats shoot 29.0 percent (9-of-31) and the Scarlet Knights managed to make just 4-of-19 (21.1 percent).
Cincinnati scored the first six points of the second half for a 33-15 lead. Rutgers never threatened until the final minute when the Scarlet Knights got within 64-56.
That was all done with defense and rebounding.
“We were trying to get back to being one of the best defensive teams in the Big East, if not the country,” Cronin said. “To beat quality teams we have to get back to holding teams near 36 percent shooting.”
The Scarlet Knights shot 37.7 percent (20-of-53) and the Bearcats finished with a 41-34 advantage on the boards.
JaQuon Parker added 11 points and Sean Kilpatrick had 10 for the Bearcats (14-3, 2-2 Big East), who are 6-0 on the road this season and that’s good news because this was the opening game of a seven-game stretch with five on the road.
Myles Mack had 15 points for Rutgers (11-4, 2-2), which had won two straight and seven of eight. The Scarlet Knights are 2-2 under Rice since he returned from a three-game school-imposed suspension for inappropriate behavior.
The game was almost 5 minutes old before either team made a field goal.
Parker hit a 3 with 15 minutes, 6 seconds left to give the Bearcats a 4-0 lead. Thirty-two seconds later Mike Poole hit a foul line jumper to bring Rutgers within 4-2.
The first team to double figures was Cincinnati and the game was 12:14 in when Sean Kilpatrick hit a driving jumper to make it 11-5. Rutgers finally needed a second column on the scoreboard when Austin Johnson hit a jumper with 4:25 left to bring the Scarlet Knights within 21-11.
Rutgers was looking for its first 3-1 start since joining the Big East. The Scarlet Knights had beaten four of the last six ranked teams to visit the Rutgers Athletic Center, including then-No. 24 Pittsburgh in its previous home game.
“We have to learn from this. We’re going to be in this spot again taking the next step forward,” Rice said. “We’ve got to learn that, in the Big East, if things aren’t going well you don’t rely on the jump shot. You have to score in the paint, you have to draw contact, you have to get to the free throw line. It’s not like we stopped playing hard — we held a tremendous team to 37 percent shooting. Our pressure was effective in the second half, we just never finished a possession off in the second half. Playing a little soft in the first half and a lot of not finishing in the second half was a deadly equation.”