NCAA hopes ride on tourney success
Khadijah Rushdan knows the time to win is now.
The future for the Rutgers women's basketball team is still up in the air heading into the Big East Tournament this weekend and the margin for error is absolutely zero.
The equation is simple — win and the Scarlet Knights' NCAA hopes remain intact. Lose, and it's all but over.
At this point in the season, nothing can be taken for granted.
"You've got 40 minutes," Rushdan said. "That's all you're guaranteed is 40 minutes. You can't go back and say ‘Oh, I'll go back and do that next game.'"
The feeling of uncertainty that surrounds the Knights' postseason odds is a completely new animal in itself. In past seasons, Rutgers was an automatic lock for the NCAA's — the only argument was over how high of a seed the Knights could lock up.
Entering the Big East Tournament with a 17-13 record, the sixth-seeded Knights are slated to face the winner of tonight's matchup between of No. 11-seed South Florida and No. 14-seed Cincinnati. Rutgers beat both the Bulls and the Bearcats in conference play earlier this season.
NCAA-bracketologists cross-examined the Knights' plight left and right and the latest predictions have the team sitting in the Big Dance as a No. 11 seed.
But Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer, a perennial contender in the NCAA's during her 39-year career, said she pays little heed to the prognosticators.
"I've tried to use my energy on things that I can affect," Stringer said. "I don't care what anybody thinks, it doesn't really matter. As long as I have the support of my team, my coaching staff and my athletic director, it doesn't really matter.
"So honestly if they drop us out, wow. Because first of all I don't like being put in the position where I have to say ‘please sir.' I'm not going to ask you anything. You can bet your last dime, because I have too much pride. I'm going to come in [to the Big East Tournament] and we will deal with whatever happens."
Whatever does happen, Rutgers has two things on its side heading up to Hartford — history and confidence.
The Knights overpowered Cincinnati, holding the Bearcats to only 33 points. And while Bulls center Jessica Lawson scored 33 points by herself against Rutgers in their matchup against USF, the Knights still prevailed.
But past victories aside, preparation for the weekend doesn't change a bit.
"We look at it as just another game, because on any given night anything can happen," Rushdan said. "We have to prepare the same way we would for any other game, not any less because we've already beat them."
Though the team found itself mired in a three-game losing skid nearing the end of the season, Rutgers rebounded, winning its last two, including an emphatic 72-52 victory over Louisville on Senior Night.
The victory over the Cardinals also served as a mini coming-out party for the Knights' underclassmen, with Rushdan scoring 16 points, freshman Monique Oliver adding 12 and sophomores Nikki Speed and Chelsey Lee contributing valuable minutes. The win gave the Knights some much-needed momentum as they enter March.
"Like coach Stringer said, March is a time of champions when players who play make plays," said senior guard Brittany Ray. "We want to be one of the last teams standing out of 64. I don't really worry about [bracketology], I just know that if we continue to win then we'll get there."
The Big East honored Ray, the team's leading scorer with 14.7 points per game, yesterday by naming her to the All-Conference Second Team after scoring in double-digits 24 times this year out of 30 games that included some of the top competition in the country.
The Knights boast one of the highest RPI and strength of schedule in the country, and played four teams ranked in the top five this season in Connecticut, Stanford, Notre Dame and Tennessee — something that should help their chances come selection night.
"I think people should realize though that this team doesn't run away from any competition," Stringer said. "There's a lot of people that would be happy to get all these W's … but I think that's demonstrated with our strength of schedule and with our RPI. So if that is what counts, which is what they have always said, then guess what, we're probably [in the NCAA Tournament]. But when we were seeded No. 1 or when we were just glad to get in, I've never taken it for granted."
Speed said she heard talk of the Knights missing the NCAA's all year long, but said the team only used it to push itself harder.
"There's games that we lost in the beginning of the season where we've been told we're not going to the Tournament," Speed said. "And that's coach Stringer's way of motivating us. I remember her coming back on the plane telling us ‘Go ahead, schedule your trips to California, Mexico wherever because we're not going to the Tournament.' And that motivated us when we got back here at the [Louis Brown Athletic Center], we were all in here shooting."
But while she is traveling to Connecticut today, Speed said she isn't planning to go on vacation anytime soon. There's still work left to do first.
"I haven't [booked a trip] anywhere," Speed said. "I don't plan on going anywhere for spring break, I plan on playing."