Returning to the bench after a three-game, 16-day suspension for inappropriate behavior and language, Rice had his Scarlet Knights sensing something special against No. 7 Syracuse when they took a 20-18 lead on Eli Carter's runner in the lane with just over 8 minutes remaining in the first half Wednesday night.
Hope turned to despair in the blink of an eye as the Orange reeled off 21 straight points to close the half and cruised to a 78-53 victory, the 903rd in Jim Boeheim's career.
Boeheim, in his 37th season at his alma mater, passed Bob Knight for second place all-time among Division I men's coaches and trails only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who has 940 victories.
Syracuse (13-1, 1-0 Big East) has won 33 straight home games, the longest active streak in the nation, and has beaten Rutgers (9-3, 0-1) 13 straight times.
"It's a tough place to play," said Austin Johnson, who had six points and four rebounds for Rutgers. "We just have to remain confident and do what we know we're capable of out there. If we do that, we can compete with anybody. Tonight was definitely a clunker."
Carter led Rutgers with 19 points, but Myles Mack, who entered the game averaging 14.5 points, did not score and was 0 of 3 from behind the 3-point arc. He entered the game leading the Big East at 51.2 percent from 3-point range.
Brandon Triche had a season-high 25
The Scarlet Knights had won five straight but were no match for Syracuse in Rice's first game back. He was suspended without pay and fined $50,000 on Dec. 13 for a violation of athletic department policy. Rice, 43, who returned to the team on Saturday, is in his third season at Rutgers.
"I'm very excited (to be back)," said Rice, a former guard at Fordham who went to Rutgers from Robert Morris, where he took the Colonials to the NCAA tournament twice. "I loved the last three or four days of preparation. This is a tough one to swallow because I would have liked to put on a little bit better showing. These things happen in the Big East."
Rutgers went 3-0 under associate head coach David Cox, capped by a 68-56 win over Rider on Friday.
The Scarlet Knights have defeated three top 10 teams at home under Rice, but the program has never accomplished the feat on the road. Syracuse won the game with that run over the final 6:42 of the first half to break open what had been a tight affair.
"We stopped doing the little things," Rice said. "We just lose that energy and that toughness and passion to defend. The team has to get that again. When we're making shots and things are going well, this team's pretty good. But when it gets punched a little bit and knocked back, our responses vary, and that can't happen in this league."
Carter's runner at 8:07 gave Rutgers its only lead at 20-18 and was the final basket of the period for the Scarlet Knights. They missed seven shots, committed three fouls and had two shots blocked as the Orange ran away.
"Little things kill you in this league, especially when you're playing against teams like Syracuse," Johnson said. "You can't take any possessions for granted."
Fair followed his own miss to start the Orange surge and consecutive baskets by Carter-Williams, the second a pretty underhanded scoop with reverse spin, gave Syracuse an eight-point lead.
Triche's fast-break layup after a block by Fair and a bank shot off the glass by Rakeem Christmas kept the Orange rolling, and James Southerland's transition 3 made it 35-20 with 2:22 to play.
Triche's lob to Southerland completed the run as Syracuse finished the half 14 of 29 (48.3 percent) from the field while holding Rutgers to 8 of 29 (27.6 percent) and led 39-20.
About the only mistake the Orange made was Christmas's turnover out of bounds in the final seconds as Syracuse tried to hold for the final shot.
At the outset, the game had the makings of a barnburner. Triche hit three 3-pointers in the first 6 minutes, all off assists by Carter-Williams as the Orange gained an early lead. But Carter kept pace with three 3s and another 3 from the wing by Jerome Seagears tied it at 16.
The score was tied four times before Syracuse took control.
"We were playing really well and we were down two," Boeheim said. "I was getting ready for it to be a battle right down to the end, so I'm shocked at what happened during that period of time. We were playing well, then we started playing even better."
Rutgers hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday, a chance to right all that went wrong against the Orange.
"Next game we have to come out with much more aggression, much more focus," Johnson said.