NEW YORK — Rutgers and St. John's were in one of those early conference matchups that was big for both teams.
They both came into Wednesday night's game with 1-1 records in the Big East and both were coming off wins over ranked teams.
Rutgers left Madison Square Garden in a much better state after a 58-56 victory over St. John's, which just couldn't make a play down the stretch the way the Scarlet Knights did, especially seniors Dane Miller and Austin Johnson.
"It is nice to have seniors. It is nice to have guys who have been through the wars and respond the right way," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "In the second half I think Dane and Austin did a tremendous job."
Miller scored all 11 of his points in the second half and Johnson and Mike Poole finished with 10 points each.
Both teams ran spread offenses that used up quite a bit of the 35-second shot clock each possession. The final 3 minutes became mostly a free throw shooting contest and Rutgers prevailed even though the Scarlet Knights (11-3, 2-1 Big East) made just 3-of-5 from the line over the final 32 seconds.
Miller gave Rutgers the lead for good at 53-52 on a basket down low and he added to it 30 seconds later when he scored on a tip-in. He credited Rice for the attitude adjustment at halftime when St. John's led 27-23.
"During halftime Coach told us in order for us to win the game, we have to play defense," Miller said.
Johnson, who was 5 of 7 from the field, knew how big this game was for two teams trying to make their way up the Big East standings, especially Rutgers, which will soon be moving to the Big Ten.
"I think it definitely is going to build great momentum for us," he said. "We know from past experience once you get on the wrong side of the floor and you accumulate a bunch of losses in the Big East, it is hard to build your way back up, so this is huge for us. We are doing something that has not been done in such a long time."
Since joining the Big East, Rutgers has gotten off to a 2-1 start just three times, and never have the Scarlet Knights opened with three straight wins.
Rice is 2-1 since returning from a three-game school-imposed suspension for inappropriate behavior.
St. John's (9-6, 1-2) struggled all over the court in trying to tie or take a lead in the final 2 minutes. The Red Storm missed two shots — 3-point attempts by D'Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson — in the final 15 seconds when they trailed by either one or two points.
Myles Mack made two free throws to give Rutgers its three-point lead with 32 seconds to play. Sampson scored down low to make it 57-56 with 23 seconds to go and then, following a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1, Harrison took a 3 and missed badly. Poole made one of two from the line with 6.6 seconds left and Sampson's final shot of the game was a 3.
"I had a clean look but after talking to the coaching staff after the game, I know I had a bigger man on me and should have attacked his feet and gotten a call," Harrison said. "I should have gone to the basket down one. We'll learn from this."
Harrison had 20 points for the Red Storm, the 11th time he reached that figure this season. He was upset with the three free throws he missed over the final 3:30.
"It was probably just a lack of concentration on my part," said Harrison, an 80 percent free throw shooter entering the game. "When I get back to school tonight I will shoot free throws."
Both teams were coming off wins over ranked teams. St. John's won at then-No. 14 Cincinnati 53-52, while Rutgers beat then-No. 24 Pittsburgh 67-62.
Chris Obekpa had five blocked shots, giving him 76 for the season. That tied Walter Berry for the St. John's record. He had four points and 11 rebounds.
Rutgers took a 13-2 lead after St. John's made one of its first 10 shots from the field. The lead didn't last all that long as the Red Storm went ahead 18-17 with 7:04 left when Sampson capped an 8-0 run with a dunk on the fast break. St. John's closed the half with a 7-2 run that gave it a 27-23 lead.
St. John's finished the half shooting 34.5 percent (10 of 29) while Rutgers shot 34.8 percent (8 of 23).
"This is the same group, the same team that made some plays down the stretch at Cincinnati to get a big win," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "Then this evening against Rutgers we couldn't get the stops or make the plays that let you win in the Big East. I thought there were some good stretches, but at the end we couldn't make the plays to get over the hump."
The teams meet again in two weeks in Piscataway, N.J.