NEW BRUNSWICK - As the minutes ticked away in the second half of last night's NCAA basketball tournament game between Rutgers and heavily favored Houston, all were wondering: Could it be?
Could Rutgers be heading back to the Sweet 16 - the first time since the 1970s? At Tavern on George, the outdoor white tent was buzzing with more than 100 fans glued to a large screen, as RU piled on the points heading late into the game. This, it appeared, was the defining moment. And they all wanted to be in New Brunswick to celebrate.
Alas, anyone with a smartphone, tablet or a pal with a NCAA bracket bet knows the final result. Heck, we aren't even going to mention the final score. For a team with a remarkable rebuild, it almost doesn't matter.
But what we will mention is what this basketball team has meant to the university and to this city.
A terrific head coach in Steve Pikiell and a team of talented kids with plenty of heart. Guys like Geo Baker and Jacob Young, seniors who never got that final victory lap around the RAC in front of their cheering fans this year. But they still played with such heart, knowing the entire State of New Jersey was behind them, somewhere, behind a mask or at home.
So, at Tavern on George, as the seconds ticked away and the stunned silence of a last-second loss finally dissipated, all eyes saw a beautiful thing; this Rutgers team - which played an entire season COVID-free - were shown on TV with their arms around each other, embracing.
This 2020-21 Scarlet Knights team is one for the books. It will be remembered for incredible wins, maddening losses and a march into the NCAA tournament that took this tight-knit group just a short breath away from the Sweet 16.
“I thought we played our hearts out,’' Pikiell told reporters after the game. “This team made history. They got through a two-year journey. They now become the standard for what we want to be at Rutgers.’'
Jerry Weldon, from the Class of 1981, was one of the fans under the white tent. He loved the fact that he was able to experience a live basketball game with so many Rutgers fans. "It was crazy in here tonight," he said. "They just couldn't finish them, man. I mean, what are you going to do?"
What you can do is this: You can buy tickets to see this team play at the RAC in the fall. You can tell your friends, your family, your pet dog that this is a real, Big 10-caliber team that is a real fighter. It is a team that is well-coached, disciplined and now - as of last night - had a brief taste of a team that was almost bound for the Sweet 16.
And this team will be hungry for it next year. So, go along on another magical ride.
As for downtown New Brunswick, the crowds dissipated quickly last night. Hey, Monday morning is coming and people need to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
Michael Tublin, co-founder of the New Brunswick Jazz Project, was one of those guys filing out of the tent at Tavern on George. He was wearing a smile.
"This was a fantastic year for Rutgers," he said. "Coack Pikiell did a really great job."
And he also tipped his cap to Tavern on George and all the other fearless downtown businesses who also faced enormous obstacles this basketball season, as the lingering pandemic and the loss of the student body posed enormous, unprecedented struggle to draw in customers.
"The fans really appreciate events like this," Tublin said, as he motioned to the elabprate set-up under the tent.
Next season will once again have the throng of RU students returning to the Hub City and this downtown promises to be buzzing like never before.
With most of the players on the basketball team returning and Pikiell hitting the road for the next generation of fresh-faced, highly-talented recruits, just imagine the possibilities.
Sure, there was disappointment in New Brunswick last night. But also plenty of pride.