Tiebreaker makes Rutgers Paradise Jam Champions
ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — Though the Rutgers women's basketball team won two out of three games at the Paradise Jam Tournament and won the championship of its division in a tiebreaker, the Scarlet Knights view this weekend as the one that got away.
After picking up wins over Southern California and No. 19 Mississippi State, the Knights found themselves down by 12 against No. 13 Texas in the second half. But RU staged a remarkable comeback keyed by a 13-0 run, evening the game at 67 with less than five seconds to play.
Then, the crushing blow — the Longhorns drained an open-look three pointer with 1.7 seconds left on the clock.
"What can you say? Opportunity missed," said Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "That's the best way I can say it. It's much easier to lose by 15 to 20 points, you know? And we had a go at it, we had the will to win."
Despite the loss to Texas (4-2), senior guard Brittany Ray won MVP of the tournament after scoring 56 points over the three game span, and sophomore forward Chelsey Lee also made the All-Tournament team.
Ray was a key part of the Knights' second-half comeback against the Longhorns, scoring nine of the team's 13 points during its run. The senior's 17-point night came on the heels of a career-best 27-point performance against Mississippi State where she scored at will, shooting a blistering 54.5 percent from the floor.
"I think we fought hard toward the end, we just had a breakdown in the last five seconds of the game, something that we go over every day in practice," Ray said. "We let the best shooter on the team get the last shot."
Saturday's game also marked the return of injured sophomore guard Khadijah Rushdan, who was helped off the court in the Knights' game at Georgia, and sat out the first two games of the tournament after being diagnosed with bone spurs in her knee.
The sophomore delivered a gritty 25-minute performance.
"[The Texas game] was important because I saw who the warriors were, I saw the people who were going to gut it out," Stringer said. "Despite how tired they were or how much they hurt they got it done. You either show up as a warrior or you also ran, put on your swimming suit and came here for a sun bath."
RU (4-3) had all the momentum going into Saturday night after two big wins over USC and Mississippi State.
The team's 62-54 upset of the No. 19 Bulldogs was its first victory over a ranked opponent this season. The Knights held Mississippi State to 29 percent shooting in the game and dominated in the first half, limiting the Bulldogs to only 19.4 percent from the floor.
Sophomore forward April Sykes complemented Ray's 27-point outburst, including an NBA-range three-pointer in the second half that helped RU pull away for good.
"Coach [Stringer] always emphasizes the team and that somebody has to show up for each game, like the first game Chelsey Lee showed up for 15 points and 12 rebounds," Ray said Friday night. "Monique [Oliver] continues to come off the bench and give us a spark, and [Junaid] did a good job for us today. It's just a team effort, and if we continue to do that we'll continue to win ball games."
Lee was the big story Thursday night in the Knights' 66-51 drubbing of the Trojans. The sophomore scored a career-high 15 points to go along with 12 rebounds for her first ever double-double.
The sophomore willed herself to score, completely overpowering the USC defense. She helped overcome a huge night from the Trojans' Ashley Corral, who finished with 24 points on 6-of-13 shooting from three-point range. USC was on fire from beyond the arc all night, with 27 of their points coming from downtown.
RU's three losses this season all came at the hands of ranked teams — No. 2 Stanford, then No. 16 Georgia and Saturday against No. 13 Texas.
But as the schedule only intensifies as December wears on, the tournament ending loss to the Longhorns will be one that the Knights will not soon forget.
"If we don't know where we all need to be then we will fail; we'll either swim together or we'll fail," Stringer said. "I thought we had gotten through these two games and it is unfortunate because we could have gotten through this game."