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Rutgers grows up in a hurry vs. Florida

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Before his team faced No. 10 Florida, Rutgers coach Mike Rice sat the Scarlet Knights down for a home movie, hoping that celluloid evidence of what a team could accomplish with a little faith might somehow spawn some belief in their skeptical minds.

The video was less than 12 months old, made on Feb. 9 of this year, when Rutgers upset then-No. 10 Villanova.

It might as well have been the Zapruder film.

Films of victories over top-10 programs are rare, grainy artifacts in the Rutgers archive room. There were, in fact, just seven lonely -- and mostly dusty -- videos in the library.

Now there are eight.

The Scarlet Knights, a team parked in the outliers’ version of relevant, upset the Gators on Thursday in double overtime, 85-83.

That the Knights, who previously this season hadn’t beaten a team with a winning record or an RPI better than 224, were able to pull off the stunner was only slightly more stunning than how they did it.

Rutgers rode the backs of a trio of backcourt freshmen who managed to play with more skill and poise than Florida’s dynamic duo of Kenny Boynton (a junior) and Erving Walker (a senior). Eli Carter, who exploded for a career-high 31 points, Myles Mack (14) and Jerome Seagears (13) did more than just outplay Boynton and Walker for the game; they skewered them in the extra periods. The freshman trio scored 17 of the Scarlet Knights’ 19 overtime points to just five from Florida’s pair.

“Our freshmen’s faces lit up,’’ Rice said of watching the Villanova video. “I just said, ‘This is what happens when you believe. This is what happens when you don’t think impossible is impossible. This is what happens when young men are determined to follow the formula and play for one another.' It’s a process.’’

That’s the same term Billy Donovan used in discussing his team’s loss, a process.

His “team didn’t play the right way,’’ the coach said, citing not just the Gators’ 18 turnovers but foolish decisions in various offensive sets and an inability hold on to what looked like a reliable 9-point first-half lead.

But neither coach was willing to make wholesale trades on his team’s fortunes based on this one game in December.

Nor, history says, should they.

A season ago, the Gators lost to Jacksonville at home. And went to the Elite Eight.

A season ago, Rutgers beat Villanova. And promptly lost its next four and six of its final eight.

The result, both coaches know well, doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you do with it.

“What we need to do is see how self-reflective we’re willing to be,’’ Donovan said. “What do we need to do differently as coaches and as players? How you handle situations like this is a big part of any young player’s development. It’s a matter of what comes out of this. That’s why I say it’s bigger than this game.’’

What comes next is truly the question.

This could be a huge first step for Rutgers, a program that has been locked in an abysmal purgatory for years.

In his second season at RU, Rice now has two wins against top-10 teams. Only the legendary Tom Young has more (four) in school history.

That tells you all you need to know about Rutgers’ run of irrelevance. That and the 20-year chasm between NCAA tournament berths.

Rice, most would agree, has the Knights headed in the right direction. It’s just taken them a little time this season to find the map. Rutgers beat up on an unappetizing menu of walkovers -- an RPI doesn’t reflect everything, but when your team RPI is 256 and you have seven wins, it tells you plenty -- and lost to anyone with a pulse. That included Miami, Illinois State, Richmond, LSU and Princeton.

Rice knew things could get better because he had talent. A year ago he was getting by on smoke and mirrors, fully aware he didn’t have the sort of transcendent player you need to survive in the Big East. He has that guy now in the form of Carter, but he needed Carter to recognize it, too.

Finally -- or suddenly -- this week, he got a glimmer of hope, sensing in practice that his team was finally buying into the lessons he was preaching, maybe even ready to take a big step.

And then there were the steps, in living color, on the court, against, of all teams, Florida.

Carter hit a dead-eye, fearless 3 to force the second overtime and swished a driving leaner to score the go-ahead bucket in that frame. Mack then sealed the deal with his own 3 with under a minute to play.

Those were just three of a highlight package of clutch shots those two and Seagears hit during the game.

“The guys really got after it this week in practice,’’ said Carter, who logged 46 of the 50 minutes. “Not just the starting five, but everyone, down to the walk-ons. We knew we were better than we were playing. We never put our heads down.’’

Now the Knights need to make sure their heads don’t get in the clouds.

Florida, meantime, has nothing to be ashamed of. The Gators have lost three games this season -- at Syracuse and at Ohio State, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation -- and on the road here.

But how UF processes this one is what people will be looking at. Brad Beal finally looked like a freshman, with seven turnovers, and Patric Young disappeared until the overtime periods. Neither can afford too many repeat performances.

More crucially, Walker and Boynton need to be more dynamic and less enigmatic. They can be a duo you love for their fearlessness and detest for their carelessness, sometimes in the span of two possessions.

If Florida is to be as good as advertised, the Gators need to find a rhythm with one another and within the game.

“We didn’t maximize each other,’’ Donovan said. “There were too many guys standing around and watching, but I think this is something we have to go through, as much as you may not like it, to reach our full potential.’’