Explosive offense, stifling defense key resounding Tourney victory
HARTFORD, Conn. — Everyone expected the Rutgers women's basketball team to pack its defense with them for the trip to the Big East Tournament.
But after Saturday's 70-44 victory over Cincinnati, it looks like the Scarlet Knights left a little room in their luggage for offense.
Senior guard Brittany Ray torched the Bearcats for 21 points and sophomore guard Khadijah Rushdan added 14 and six assists as the Knights downed Cincinnati for the second time this season, advancing to the third round of the Tournament in the process.
"Everybody did a great job finding me," Ray said. "Coach Stringer told me before the game that I have to do a better job of getting myself open without the ball and moving without the ball. I think I focused on that and my teammates found me and I hit the shots, I just felt good today."
But Rutgers' one-two combo of Rushdan and Ray were not the only two to pile on the points. Adding her name to the list of double-figure scorers — for the first time since Jan. 23 against Marquette — was sophomore April Sykes with 13 points. The forward made her presence felt on both ends of the court, pulling down eight rebounds — all defensive.
Sykes, who was plagued with shooting troubles throughout the season, said the confident feeling was with her long before she drained the first of her six shots.
"I just think it in my mind in the first place, before the first shot," Sykes said. "It's crunch time, you either live or go home and about what I can give to the team to help us get farther. It's not about hitting that first shot, it's about playing basketball right now, playing Rutgers basketball."
Rushdan's point total was all the more impressive due to the fact that the sophomore spent 11 minutes of the first half on the bench because of early foul trouble. The guard made the nine minutes she did play count, scoring seven points in the opening period.
Even while she was on the bench, Rushdan remained animated, cheering so emphatically from the sidelines that Sykes had to grab her wrist and ask her to sit down.
"I've had the tendency to get into foul trouble so me being on the bench cheering is something I've been doing," Rushdan said smiling. "But if I can't be out there I've just tried to give my support in any way possible."
For Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer, the Knights' back-to-back games with more than 70 points and 52 percent shooting from the floor are a welcome sign of relief.
"It was good to see the improvement of everyone," Stringer said. "I thought the team played well together and seemed to be free. We're communicating and we're rebounding and not turning the ball over. There's no time like the present. We've been notorious for playing closer to Rutgers style closer to January but it's now March, so no time like the present."
Rutgers dominated the Bearcats on the boards, outrebounding Cincinnati 38-26. Senior forward Myia McCurdy tied Sykes for a team-high eight, while freshman forward Monique Oliver chipped in four, along with nine points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting from the floor.
The teams traded punches in the first half, but the Knights used their stifling press to cage the Bearcats.
The high point of the half, though, came in the offensive end for Rutgers, who held possession for more than a minute. Though the Knights missed three consecutive shots, they were quick to the rebound, muscling Cincinnati off the ball. Their efforts were eventually rewarded when Lee found the basket for a hard-fought two points.
After the game, Cincinnati head coach Jamelle Elliott said the Knights looked completely different than the team that only scored 44 points in their January victory at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
"To be honest, it looks like they changed their style of play," Elliott said. "They're going up and down with you more, they're looking to pressure you more, they aren't passing the ball 1,000 times before they shoot it. … They're looking to get out on the break more instead of just walking the ball up the floor."