PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The court was cleared, the locker room was quiet and Jonathan Mitchell was dressing after the best night of his Rutgers career.
The smile told a lot, but his words said more.
“I’m floating on Cloud Nine,” he said.
The senior power forward was carried there by excited teammates, and an adoring student body, after his four-point play with .8 seconds remaining capped an impossible rally and lifted Rutgers to a 77-76 win against stunned No. 9 Villanova in front of 6,892 Wednesday at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Mitchell finished with a career-high 25 points, including his free throw following his 25-foot 3-pointer when he was fouled by Corey Fisher, and was mobbed by fans as the students rushed the court at the final horn.
“We never gave up. A miracle two minutes,” Mitchell said. “I can’t describe it. I’ve never been in a situation like this before. On the biggest stage, in the Big East, playing a Top 10 team …all those things can go on forever.”
The impossibility came from many avenues, beginning with an undermanned and struggling Rutgers (13-11, 4-8 Big East) in search of a marquee win against one of the nation’s top teams.
But it went much deeper than the need for an upset.
Rutgers trailed by 13 points with 4:24 to play, 70-62 with two minutes remaining, and were down five points with 11 seconds left.
“When I was at Florida, I was always on the other end (of a court rushing),” said Mitchell, who left the Gators after the 2008-09 season. “When we used to lose, coach (Billy) Donovan used to sub (the starters) out. So, I know how it feels to be on that side, but this is my first time being a part of that. It was great. Our fans did a great job.”
Through the first six weeks of the season, first-year Rutgers coach Mike Rice continually talked about the Scarlet Knights’ soft mentality, and their unwillingness to fight through difficult stretches in games.
That subsided recently, but the only thing the Scarlet Knights had to show for it was a string of frustratingly close losses until this night.
“The toughness to do that was just extraordinary,” Rice said. “The young guys believe because they see that the seniors continually work. (Mitchell) is in the gym all the time. There’s a reason he’s successful. He puts it in. …It helps me build the program the way I want to build it.”
The furious rally started with Mike Coburn making one free throw with two minutes left to make it 70-62, but missing a second. Villanova rebounded, but Dane Miller came up with a steal in the backcourt, and Mitchell quickly hit a 23-foot jumper.
Villanova inbounded and tried to break Rutgers’ press, but Miller dove to the floor for a loose ball, and a few seconds later James Beatty (15 points) was in the right corner making a 3-pointer to pull Rutgers within 70-68 with 1:39 to play.
“We wouldn’t be there without those plays,” said Mitchell, who was 8 of 19 from the field. “To me, the biggest play in the game was when Dane dove on the floor and got that loose ball. Our defense and our guys never gave up.”
James Bell made a pair of free throws with 59 seconds left to put Villanova ahead by four, and the Wildcats (19-5, 7-4) extended their lead to 75-70 on Bell’s 3-pointer with 11 seconds left.
However, Beatty quickly countered by banking in a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds, and Fisher was fouled on the in-bounds play.
Fisher missed the first free throw but made the second. Mitchell inbounded the ball then hurried up the court for the last play.
“I knew (the Villanova defenders) were both going to jump out at me because they knew I’d been hot,” Beatty said. “I’m pretty sure the coaching staff told them, ‘If he comes off the ball screen to trap him.’ For some reason, they left J-Mitch’s spot open, and I had 100 percent confidence he was going to knock it down.”
Beatty gave the ball to Mitchell, who squared his body, launched a shot from 25 feet. Despite getting hit on the arm by Fisher, he made the basket, then composed himself during a timeout. The 74 percent free throw shooter capped his brilliant night with a perfect free throw.
“Definitely, the biggest shot of my life,” Mitchell said. “After I hit the shot, I just couldn’t believe that it went in. Then, they called a timeout, and I just had to calm down and relax …breathe.”