NCAA chances intact after comeback win
There were times during Saturday's Big East matchup at Providence when the Rutgers women's basketball team seemed destined for a devastating loss. The Scarlet Knights entered halftime down six points in a game the team had to win in order to keep postseason hopes realistic.
Head coach C. Vivian Stringer and sophomore April Sykes each picked up early technical fouls and the team's composure was teetering. But RU emerged from the locker room for the second half as a team refocused on a mission to play deep into March. The Knights (16-13, 8-7) rallied to score 40 second half points in a vital 67-56 victory over the Friars.
The win ends a three game losing streak, which threatened to kill the team's quest for an eighth consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament. Improved ball security propelled RU, something it lacked while averaging a shade over 22 turnovers during its losing streak. "We've been killing ourselves on the turnovers and it's been very frustrating. We've been halfway decent on the offensive side of things but the turnovers have been horrible," Stringer said. Her team cleaned up its act on Saturday, losing the ball just 13 times. Providence jumped out to an early 8-2 advantage and led by as much as nine points, but RU refused to let the game slip away. Senior guard Brittany Ray led the way during the Knights comeback win, scoring 23 points. Though Ray was quiet on offense recently, her coach knew she'd be there to produce when it mattered most. "We act like we forgot [about Ray]. We have to make a real effort to find her," Stringer said. "She promises not to force it. They promise to try to find her." Ray attributes her success to teammates' abilities to locate her in good spots. "My teammates found me when I was open today. My coaches and teammates continue to tell me to shoot the ball and I felt good out there," Ray said. RU began the second half by incorporating it's patented 55-press to create a sense of panic for the Friars. The Knights played with inspired defensive fervor, forcing 18 turnovers. They were also able to limit Providence senior Chelsea Marandola, one of the Big East's top scorers, to just 11 points. The Knights grabbed a 48-47 lead with less than eight minutes to play. Moments later, Ray sunk her only three-pointer of the contest. Sophomore guard Kadijah Rushdan relentlessly drove to the basket and frequently was fouled hard. She converted on 10-of-12 free throw attempts.
The Knights shot an impressive 82.6 percent from the charity stripe, where the team attempted 23 free throws after getting to the line just seven times in last Wednesday's game versus St. John's. The team's improved efficiency on offense pleased Stringer, as it is something she's harped on all season.
"[We tried] to make a conscious effort and everything we did was quick hits," Stringer said. "Whoever got the ball, they just got it and nothing was designated. They knew if they got into trouble — for example, a certain pattern, 5-2 is a guarantee it will be to the inside.
"With that in mind, it allowed them to play free and people worked harder to be free and be alert because you didn't know when you might get the ball." RU seemed to wake up at halftime and snapped out of its recent funk just in time to make a late run for the tourney. With her team's losing streak now squarely in the rear-view mirror, Stringer says the Knights can loosen up a bit and prepare for today's home game against Louisville. "For the most part, we have been having silent bus rides home and it is not comfortable. Now we can at least put a movie on," Stringer said. "I even brought some UNO cards so if someone wants to play UNO, they can do that with me. Let's try and relax and we should have been able to do this."