The Departed: Prince's early exit highlights loss of three starters
Epiphanny Prince single-handedly won games last year, scoring nearly 20 points per game and representing 30 percent of the team's scoring.
Kia Vaughn's heart and post presence carried the Rutgers women's basketball team to its 2007 NCAA Championship Game appearance. Forward Heather Zurich's shooting touch was always good for a boost and forward Brooklyn Pope's spark off the bench brought a different kind of energy to the court.
And now it's all gone.
"We have lost the entire inside and obviously we have lost an extremely productive shooter who can go inside and outside, and you could always call on for a shot in any given situation," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "With that, this is a rather daunting challenge. I personally like challenges.
"I just have to keep my mind focused on the fact that as long as we try and really work hard every day and give the effort, then I feel that we are learning because we can't afford to drop our heads and be frustrated."
The challenge of replacing Prince, a guard who left the Scarlet Knights early to play overseas, and Vaughn, a center drafted by the New York Liberty to play in the WNBA, is a daunting one for RU.
"Epiphanny is a great loss and we didn't have time to recover," Stringer said. "By the time we found out, we couldn't even bring another person in. So that is not a comfortable position to be placed in and it doesn't change our schedule or anything else. It is what it is, and we can't spend any time worrying about it."
It all comes down to senior guard Brittany Ray and sophomores Khadijah Rushdan and April Sykes to replace the massive void left by Prince.
Ray was second on the team in scoring behind Prince — with 10.2 points per game — and is the only returning player to start every game last season.
"You can't replace 20 points per game," Ray said. "It's going to have to come from everybody. Like coach Stringer says, the freshman group that came last year are sophomores now, so we're going to have to have a lot more contributions from them, and I think that they're going to be a pivotal part in our success this year because they've grown up so much."
Though Rushdan was in her second season last year after a medical redshirt, both she and Sykes were freshmen. Both came to Rutgers as cream-of-the-crop recruits. At the time, Rushdan was Delaware's all-time leading scorer. Sykes, from Starkville, Miss., is a high school McDonald's All-American and 2008 Preseason Big East Freshman of the Year.
Rushdan's slashing style at combo guard last season led to 8.4 points per game in conference play.
"Last year was a great learning experience," Rushdan said. "I felt like I was getting stronger and stronger as the season went on, and it felt great to get back on the court after my injury."
Sykes, on the other hand, did not live up to expectations as a freshman. She showed glimpses of a lights-out jump shot early in the season, but then trailed off significantly, averaging just 1.8 points per game against the Big East and shooting just 15 percent in-conference.
"Even if Epiphanny was still here, I still saw myself stepping up more as a scorer," Sykes said. "Brittany is the only legit, experienced player in every aspect of the college level and she's going to need help. Khadijah's going to need help and everybody's going to have to hold their own weight."
Stringer said that Prince's defensive prowess — 171 steals in her last two seasons — is also a significant loss.
Senior forward Myia McCurdy is a defensive specialist, Ray said, and is expected to help fill that void. McCurdy tore her ACL two seasons ago and had to play all of 2008-09 with a knee brace, but said she is fighting fit.
"My knee feels great. It's way better than last year," McCurdy said. "It's 100 percent. I feel faster, stronger, and I feel like I have more balance and can jump higher. I'm done. No brace. I'm free. Free at last.
"Whether we lost our top-scorer or not, defense is always important. We can't get on the floor unless we play defense. We're not going to win games unless we play defense. We have to address defense from the beginning."
Replacing Vaughn is a different story.
The consensus among coaches at Big East Media Day is that Vaughn is not the type of player you can just replace at center. Her athleticism, strength and energy in the post both offensively and defensively is unlike any other, said West Virginia head coach Mike Carey.
"Kia Vaughn, in my opinion, is the one that we really struggled with because she's just a force down low," he said. "It's funny. After our last game I told her, ‘You had a great career, but I'm sure as hell glad you're leaving because I don't want to see her anymore.'"
Senior center Rashidat Junaid is the resident veteran down-low, averaging around 10 minutes per game through the last two seasons. At times, Junaid had more scoring prowess than Vaughn and is crucial to success in the post, Stringer said.
"I miss her. Kia was so competitive and she battled every day," Junaid said. "It's tough not having her here, but it just gives me the chance to step up."
Junaid is also a key as a rebounder, but the Knights are most impressed with the emergence of another sophomore McDonald's All-American, Chelsey Lee, as a rebounder.
"Chelsey Lee is probably going to be one of the best rebounders this year," Ray said. "She's totally improved in that area. We didn't get to see it as much last year because we had Kia Vaughn and she was such a dominant post force."
RU lost two important players in Zurich, now playing professionally overseas, and Pope, a transfer to Baylor. Between the four total departed student athletes, Stringer knows the Knights have their work cut out for them.
"I wish we had more time to prepare but I like the challenge we have as a coaching staff — to be the ultimate team," she said.