MEMPHIS, Tenn. — J.J. Moore didn’t have a great offensive game for Rutgers, but his play in the final seconds assured the Scarlet Knights would move on in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
Moore had 13 points and his wrestling for a rebound late led to two free throws in the closing seconds and a 72-68 victory over South Florida in the opening game of the conference’s inaugural tournament on Wednesday night.
With Rutgers, the No. 7 seed, leading 70-68 with 5.7 seconds remaining, Kadeem Jack missed two free throws. But while Moore wrestled with USF’s Victor Rudd for the ball, Rudd was called for his fifth foul. Moore converted the ensuing two free throws for the final margin.
“As simple and basic as it sounds, I just thought our personality and our demeanor on the floor was a key element to our victory,” Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said. “We missed a lot of layups. We threw the ball away. We had some missed plays. But just our determination and our will and our personality, we didn’t point fingers, we didn’t hang our heads.”
Rutgers will face 5th-ranked Louisville, the tournament’s second seed, on Thursday.
Jack led the Scarlet Knights (12-20) with 18 points, while Myles Mack added 16. Wally Judge had 15 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out. Moore was only 2 of 6 from the field, but converted 9 of 12 free throws.
Rudd scored 22 points to lead the 10th-seeded Bulls (12-20), while Chris Perry had 12 points. Martino Brock finished with 10 as USF lost its final nine games.
“If you’ve followed us, the game was almost a microcosm of similar games over the last maybe eight games that we’ve played,” USF coach Stan Heath said. “We’ve been right there. One possession, one stop, a 3-point shot, a rebound. Just, you know, a crucial play. And it just seems like we’ve been coming up a little bit short when it comes to making some of those plays.”
USF’s woes in the final 8 minutes came from the free throw line, where continual misses kept them from grabbing the lead.
Rutgers led 66-62 with 32 seconds left after Moore split a pair of free throws. Rudd’s rebound basket pulled the Bulls within two with just under 19 seconds remaining.
South Florida stayed within four points of Rutgers until Moore’s final free throws.
Rutgers held a 40-37 lead at halftime behind 13 points from Mack, who was 3 of 5 from outside the arc. Judge scored 10 points for the Scarlet Knights, who connected on 52 percent on their shots in the first half.
Rudd had 13 to lead the Bulls, but was 3 of 8 from the field.
There were times in the first half when the teams contended with sloppy play, throwing the ball away and flipping up wild shots.
The Scarlet Knights pulled away early in the second half with an 8-1 run as Mack’s 3-pointer capped the rally.
Rutgers eventually would extend the lead to 56-44 near the under 12-minute media timeout.
The Scarlet Knights lead was still 11 when South Florida scored seven straight points to pull within 58-54. During the streak, South Florida went to the free throw line five times, making all of them.
“I thought our guys turned it up another notch and had a chance to take a lead,” Heath said of the comeback.
But after that the Bulls missed their next six from the line, preventing them from ever overtaking Rutgers despite getting within 59-58 at one point.
Rutgers moves into Thursday’s round against the second-seeded Cardinals recalling a 102-54 loss at Louisville on Feb. 16.
“We have to trust each other at the offensive end,” Jordan said of trying to play better. “Trust what we do, trust the system. Believe that if we can stay disciplined in our offense, that we can get through the initial press and their secondary press in the half-court.”