After Rutgers stunned No. 10 Florida, 85-83, in double overtime on Thursday night, nobody could stop talking about the brilliant performance by freshman Eli Carter.
Everyone except, that is, for Eli Carter.
“I had no doubt who I was giving the ball to and what play it was going to be,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said of Carter. “We really didn’t have that last year. I’ve got somebody that I’m confident is going to make something positive for us. That’s nice to have.”
Carter’s peers were equally effusive in their praise. Fellow freshman guard Jerome Seagears, obviously a student of basketball, animatedly compared Carter’s brilliant performance to Bernard King‘s 60-point Christmas Day game, which occurred eight years before Seagears was born. Junior forward Dane Miller said of Carter: “He’s one of the best scorers I’ve seen.” Even Kyrie Irving, a friend of Carter’s, chimed in on Twitter.
But in terms of persona, Carter is far more Derrick Rose than Gary Payton. While his teammates excitedly watched highlights on ESPN in the locker room, a reserved Carter gave the impression it was nothing special, instead of merely the best non-conference victory for Rutgers in over 20 years.
To watch Carter figuratively shrug off his performance after the game, you’d never know it was the same guy who scored every which way en route to 31 points against Florida’s more heralded and experienced backcourt.
Asked about the zone he was in, Carter deadpanned, “I just try to stay calm. When the ball’s in my hand, if there’s an open shot, I take it.”
Arguably the biggest singular shot of the game was Carter’s three-pointer with 18 seconds left to tie the game and send it to double overtime. Carter’s take?
“Coach called the play for me, I came off the screen. They kind of flat hedged, stayed back off me a little bit, so I took the open shot.”
Belying Carter’s stoicism was the wonderfully mad atmosphere at the 8,000-seat Louis Brown Athletic Center, a throwback gem. At what is affectionately known as the RAC, the band provides the only soundtrack, the scoreboard is digital, the fans are right on top of the court and the noise level is simply deafening when elite teams like Florida come to visit. (Seagears: “The floor was shaking, it was so crazy. I thought Godzilla was on the way.”)
Working the crowd further into a frenzy was the return of former RU star Mike Rosario, who transferred to Florida two years ago when Rutgers Basketball wasn’t in nearly as good a place. Limited by a back injury, Rosario scored five points in 14 minutes and was roundly booed every time he touched the ball. Harboring no ill will, a game Rosario entered the Rutgers locker room after the game to congratulate his former mates.
But Rutgers’ freshman-laden group reduced the Rosario saga to a mere subplot. Besides Carter, Myles Mack â€“ who won the de facto high school national title with Jersey City’s St. Anthony at the RAC back in the spring â€“ sank a trio of key three-pointers. Seagears attacked the basket relentlessly en route to 13 points.
And though Derrick Randall scored just four points, he played a key role in slowing down Florida big man Patric Young. The Rutgers defense also frustrated elite freshman guard Brad Beal, who scored 15 points but shot 1-for-6 on threes and committed seven turnovers.
“Our team needs to go through (tough losses) to reach our full potential, as difficult as that may be,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It’s bigger for me than just this game, it’s about us getting better.”
In a close loss to LSU about a month ago, Carter and Seagears each passed on makeable shots that would have given Rutgers the lead. As Rice tries to build up a Rutgers program that hasn’t been a factor nationally in quite some time, seeing his touted freshman class show great amounts of poise and courage against a team like Florida gave him an obvious measure of pride.
“The No. 10 ranked team came in our building, and the last two minutes of that game, our freshmen’s faces lit up,” Rice said. “I said (to the team), ‘This is what happens when you believe, when you don’t think the impossible is impossible.’ And this is what happens when young men are determined to follow the formula and play for one another.”
Which leads back to the self-effacing Carter, who was the seventh and final member of Rutgers’ decorated freshman class. In fact, Carter committed only after recruit Mike Taylor decided to go to prep school for a year and junior college transfer Tyree Graham ruptured his Achilles.
Perhaps the same even keel Carter showed after a magnificent individual performance in a sensational team victory lends itself to the preternatural poise he demonstrated on the court, even as the pressure and noise level intensified. As such, despite seemingly being a relative afterthought, Carter appears nonetheless to have the potential in both mentality and ability to be the go-to scorer an identity-starved Rutgers has craved since Rosario left.
“This is why I came here, to change things around,” Carter said. “This is just the beginning.
“If we keep playing the way we’re playing and practicing every day, there’s no telling who we can beat.”
And perhaps that’s the key for Eli Carter â€“ not so much acting like you’ve done it before, but acting like you’re going to do it again.
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