He was lost in a sea of bodies. Corey Sanders didn’t know if he should move to his left or to his right, if he should head back to the Rutgers locker room or just give up and get swept up in the love.
And yes, love is the right word. Hundreds of fans had mobbed the court at the Rutgers Athletic Center, a joyous moment for a program that hasn’t had a win like this in years. And, just like he was throughout the game, Sanders was in the middle of it all.
“I LOVE YOU, COREY!” a delirious fan yelled at the Scarlet Knights junior, and so he gave it right back. “I love you, too!” he replied, and when somebody handed him the New Jersey-shaped trophy for this rivalry a minute later, Sanders held it aloft to the crowd like a conquering hero.
We spend an awful lot of time wondering what college basketball could be like in this state, and well, here was the answer. It was Rutgers 71, Seton Hall 65. It was 8,318 fans reminding everyone that the Rutgers Athletic Center can make the hairs on your neck stand at attention when the place is really rocking.
It was Sanders, the brightest star through some difficult times for this Rutgers program, willing his team to a victory over the 15th-ranked Pirates and then watching in awe as the fans descended upon the court.
“You always envision playing in that type of game, in that type of environment,” Sanders said after his 22-point, four-rebound performance. “Today, I felt like our fans came together. You couldn’t hear anything on the floor. That’s the type of stuff you need if we’re going to get this thing rolling.”
Is this the type of victory that will elevate Steve Pikiell’s program? The second-year coach tapped the brakes on the “signature win” talk, but he was willing to acknowledge that his Scarlet Knights have taken another step as a program on Saturday afternoon. And a big one.
But before debating what it means, don’t forget to savor the moment and remember how far these two programs have come. In 2013, with both teams lacking in both talent and utterly devoid of hope, I wrote an obituary for this rivalry:
Rutgers-Seton Hall, a college basketball rivalry born in 1916 that slowly evolved into the best this state had to offer, died Tuesday night in Piscataway. Cause of death: utter indifference.
Barely 4,500 mourners showed up for the memorial service at the Rutgers Athletic Center, and they were respectfully quiet for most of the ceremony. In lieu of flowers, they sent empty courtside seats.
Four years later, every seat in the RAC — from the shoulder-to-shoulder student section to those final-row nosebleeds where you can almost touch the ceiling — was occupied. You could only hope, after Rutgers won the opening tip, that the game could live up to the atmosphere.
And it did. This was everything that you want from a rivalry game in college basketball. It was intense. It was chippy. It had just enough moments of individual brilliance, and when that buzzer sounded, it was clear that there was no love lost between the participants.
“It’s a rivalry game. That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Seton Hall forward Ish Sanogo said when asked about the intense play. “We’re not out there to be friends. We’re not out there to be buddy-buddy. At the end of the day, I don’t like anybody on that team.”
Sanogo was also asked about the atmosphere in the RAC. “It was alright,” he said with an audible shrug, the perfect answer if you were wearing blue at this game and feeling blue when it ended. Are we sure these two teams can’t play again before next year?
Maybe, like, next week?
This is not a moment to panic for Seton Hall, not even close. The Pirates are 9-2, and given their difficult schedule, no rightminded fan wouldn’t have signed for that before the season began. They had a chance to win despite an eyebrow-raising 34-11 foul differential in favor of the home team. They’ll be just fine.
“I’m not going to go back to the drawing board or do anything crazy,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “I’m not worried. We’re still a good basketball team.”
But, on this day, Rutgers was better. Sanders hit three huge baskets down the stretch, then outfought the Pirates for a pair of rebounds. The Scarlet Knights will give Big Ten opponents fits if they can hit enough shots to match their intensity like they did in this one.
When it ended, the fans poured out onto the court for the first time in almost three years here. The Rutgers players escaped to the locker room, then returned together to take a few photos underneath the basket with that Jersey-shaped prize.
Yes, this is how a college basketball rivalry is supposed to feel. There was love and there was hate, and in the middle of it all, there was a smiling Corey Sanders soaking in every last minute.