NCAA experience invaluable for young squad
STANFORD, Calif. — All the Rutgers women's basketball team was playing for against Iowa was another 40 minutes.
An additional 2,400 seconds of game time, another chance to step out on the hardwood. The prospect of not having to go home after only one game, the chance for more experience.
That wish was not granted.
Now, with three seniors graduating, the Scarlet Knights have six returning players for next year. The only question that remains for them is what will they take out of Saturday's loss?
"I think we've got a whole lot more to do," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "How good can we be? I don't know, I couldn't have told you what we were going to do coming in here.
"So much of winning has to do with the mental mindset. You can have all the skill in the world but if your mind's not tough or if your mind doesn't think like it should then what difference does it make? The jury's still out."
At the least, it was an atypical postseason experience for the Knights.
Coming into the season, RU made an appearance in the Sweet 16 for five straight years. This season, the Hawkeyes ousted the Knights before they even got their foot in the door.
Though RU put up a valiant effort and one of its more complete games of the season, it still came up short. Iowa's deluge of three-pointers in the second half was simply too much to overcome.
Now, with the departure of RU's only three upperclassmen, all eyes are on the returning six. To some, the lack of a senior presence next season could be seen as a negative.
Sophomore forward Chelsey Lee views it as an opportunity.
"What I think is great about the returning class is we don't have the seniors," Lee said. "So if we don't know each other by now we'll have a bunch of time over the summer and two more years of playing together and hopefully we can make it all the way to the big game."
Though their tournament life only lasted one game, Stringer said she was determined to make sure that all six of the Knights' returning players got a taste of an NCAA Tournament game.
In last season's tournament, Stringer kept her freshmen on the bench out of the desire to "survive," she said. But Lee, sophomore guard Nikki Speed and classmates April Sykes and Khadijah Rushdan all saw crucial minutes against the Hawkeyes. Freshmen Monique Oliver and Erica Wheeler made appearances of their own down the stretch.
"I will say that all of them got really valuable experience," Stringer said. "I was quick to make substitutions to get everybody a taste, assuming that everybody was going to get in and make a difference in the game."
An area of concern coming into Saturday's contest was which Knights team would show up. Would it be the RU squad that fired on all cylinders against Louisville, or upset Georgetown in two overtimes? Or would it be the team that looked listless and lost in a blowout loss at home against Syracuse?
Though the Knights held their own against Iowa, the pattern of inconsistency is something that the returning squad knows they must address.
"We waited too late to find our intensity and to know the type of team that we are," Lee said. "We have to learn who we are and identify. ‘We're the Scarlet Knights, we're a running team. We're the Scarlet Knights, we're a defensive team. We're the Scarlet Knights, we're a pressing team.'"
After the game, an emotional Speed admitted that the rollercoaster quality of the season was one of its biggest detriments.
"We can't have that," the guard said. "That hurts us. Roller coasters hurt us."
Four years ago, RU's departing trio of seniors were ushered into the sport's biggest stage on the backs of their upperclassmen but were never able to return.
And while the team fell short this year, there is always something to be learned. Starting next season, the Knights' destiny lies in the hands of its four juniors — what they make of this year remains to be seen.
But despite the disappointment of the year, Stringer sees the underlying potential.
"[The seniors] came into a situation, those juniors took them to play in a national championship and that was an incredible ride," Stringer said. "Unfortunately we as a team were not strong enough this year — the seniors as well as the heralded, if you will, freshmen and sophomores — to sustain the real kind of pressure and expectations that were upon us.
"So we struggled quite a bit, but I do believe that ultimately, before they leave, they will enjoy that kind of success."