It wasn’t Hamady Ndiaye’s inability to hold onto a rebound in the final minute that irritated Rutgers coach Fred Hill, nor was he put off by former Metuchen High star Marqus Blakely returning home to score 17 points and grab nine rebounds.
Instead, Hill pointed to a lack of rebounding and the inability to care for the basketball as the reasons the Scarlet Knights lost for the first time, a 77-71 defeat to America East opponent Vermont Sunday in the Legends Classic in front of 4,966 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
Rutgers (2-1) shot 50 percent from the field, but 20 turnovers and a minus-5 rebound total against the Catamounts (2-1) were the undoing.
“It was our rebounding. That is what hurt us throughout the game,’’ said Rutgers guard Mike Rosario, who scored a game-high 22 points. “It was our rebounding and turnovers. That was basically the big part of the game.’’
Rutgers, which allowed Vermont to grab 16 offensive rebounds, was also out-rebounded in Friday’s win against Drexel.
“Our guys gotta get tougher and we just gotta start bogarting and just force our way to get more rebounds,’’ Rosario said. “That’s how you win games, turnovers and rebounding. That’s something we have to work on as a team.’’
The rebounding and care for the basketball was highlighted in the closing 34 seconds.
After Blakely made a free throw to give the Catamounts a 71-70 lead, he missed the second one. Ndiaye had an uncontested rebound, but Garvey Young snuck up and slapped it away to regain possession for the Catamounts. It led to a pair of Maurice Joseph free throws and a 73-70 lead with 26.8 seconds left.
“Rebounds are pretty much heart,’’ said Rutgers center Greg Echenique, who had nine points and five rebounds in 23 minutes. “It’s something you want to do. There are some tricks, but rebounding is just being tough, going after it. I guess we have to do a lot rebounding drills in practice. It’s just wanting the ball.’’
The lack of caring for the ball surfaced again as freshman wing Dane Miller’s pass to Rosario near the right corner was tough to handle, and bounced out-of-bounds, ending Rutgers’ hopes.
After turning the ball over 11 times and registering 19 assists in the opener, the Scarlet Knights have 18 assists and 35 turnovers in the last two games.
“You can’t turn the ball over, even when you’re playing fast, 20 times,’’ Hill said.
Even with the problems, Rutgers led 55-49 with 11:12 remaining, before the offense really came apart.
Before the Scarlet Knights scored again, they turned the ball over six times, missed two shots and saw Vermont go on an 11-0 run to take a 60-55 lead with 7:22 to play.
“We’re not rebounding the ball very well right now. We gave up 16 offensive rebounds,’’ Hill said. “It shouldn’t be 70-70 if you rebound the basketball. And I knew this was coming sooner or later, but we had about a five minute stretch where we lost our composure.’’
But, youth and familiarity may be factors.
Sophomore Patrick Jackson is playing significant minutes for the first time in his career, and finished with two points and four turnovers.
First-year Scarlet Knights James Beatty and Miller combined for two points, three assists and seven turnovers and starting point guard Mike Coburn had 13 points, five assists and committed two turnovers.
“We can’t have that many turnovers out of our guards,’’ Hill said. “It’s something you work on every day in practice. We work on trying to make good decisions, and I think as we develop a more cohesive offensive unit, you start to make those decisions and you don’t have these nights.’’
The positive for Rutgers is Rosario showed better shot selection and Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell rebounded from a poor game against Drexel to score 15 points and grab six rebounds.
“I think I was more active and I think I was more aggressive,’’ Mitchell said. “I came out with a little more fire, with all the hype with Blakely coming back home, and I tried to come out with a lot of energy. It just wasn’t enough.’’
Evan Field and Joseph each scored 17 points for Vermont.