Potential shows through despite down season
STANFORD, Calif. — Although C. Vivian Stringer spoke of Iowa, her words could be viewed as a summary of the Rutgers women's basketball team's season.
Only minutes earlier, the Hawkeyes downed the Scarlet Knights, bringing the team's year to a close.
The Knights were the underdog against Iowa. Then again, they were underdogs for most of the season.
"The greater the challenge, the better I personally like it," head coach Stringer said. "And the better I think our team likes it."
Challenge may be the perfect word to describe the Knights' year.
The cards were stacked against Rutgers from the start, with two key offseason departures in standout Kia Vaughn and Heather Zurich. Then, of course, came the surprise exodus of would-be senior Epiphanny Prince in May, leaving the Knights without their prime scoring threat heading into the year. It was up to senior guard Brittany Ray to lead the team both on and off the court.
"I would have to say the season was a little bit of a roller coaster, but towards the end I think we showed up," said Ray, the team's leading scorer this season with 14.2 points per game. "We bought into the system."
And, much like a roller coaster, the year was not for those with weak constitutions.
Rutgers entered the season with a squad of 10, kicking off the year against Stanford, the No. 2 team in the country. By the end of the season, the Knights played four of the top-five teams in the nation in No. 1 Connecticut, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 4 Tennessee.
As late as March, the Knights swung between both extremes. They came within a single shot of upsetting ranked foes Georgia and Texas, only to suffer embarrassing losses to squads such as George Washington.
Freshman forward Christine Huber transferred to Northeastern in December, leaving Rutgers with a single-digit roster heading into conference play.
One of the lowest points came in mid-February, when the Knights lost to unranked Syracuse at home 76-45, leaving Stringer scratching her head, wondering which Rutgers team would take the court every night.
That question was answered — and not a moment too soon — in March when the Knights delivered an impressive regular-season-ending win over Louisville and followed it up with two big wins in the Big East Tournament. Facing Georgetown for the second time, Rutgers downed the Hoyas in a double-overtime thriller in which Nikki Speed marked a spot for herself in Rutgers history by sinking a buzzer-beating three to keep the Knights alive.
But in the end, maybe the odds against the Knights were just too great.
The hot-shooting Hawkeyes proved too much for Rutgers, who failed to advance to the second round of the Tournament for the first time since 2004.
"It's always tough this time of year, especially when you get bounced early on," said Stringer, a former Iowa coach. "Honestly, if we had to lose to somebody, there's no other team I'd rather lose to than the Iowa Hawkeyes. We played hard, but Iowa is just better. The categories that we knew we needed to control, we didn't."
Replacing Ray's scoring and leadership will be key for next year, but Rutgers' junior-laden roster for the upcoming year should be able to do the job.
Forward Chelsey Lee led the Knights in rebounding this year with 7.2 boards per game, and the team returns four of its top-five scorers in Khadijah Rushdan, Lee, April Sykes and Monique Oliver. So far, the Scarlet Knights have officially signed only one player to next season's incoming class — in-state product Daisha Simmons.
Rushdan will undoubtedly be turned to as one of Rutgers' leaders on and off the court next season.
The guard exploded down the team's final stretch this season, scoring in double digits in the Knights' last seven games. Rushdan's nine points per game were good for second on the squad and her 4.4 rebounds per game were third.
Though she was quieter during the Knights' out-of-conference slate this year and sat out two games with a knee injury, Rutgers needs Rushdan to be a consistent force on the court.
Center Rashidat Junaid and forward Myia McCurdy — the focal point of Stringer's 55-press — are both leaving the Knights' post.
Still, with the evolution of Lee and the introduction of Oliver, who boasted a team-high 60.8 shooting percentage, Rutgers' frontcourt could be a force to be reckoned with next season. Combine the experience the duo received with the potential of Oliver in her sophomore campaign, and the Knights sport a low-post that can not only dominate the glass but also be lethal on offense.
Prior to the tournament, Stringer said the team had taken its lumps this season.
As far as next season, the Knights boast a young roster with an extremely high ceiling. Whether the team can put all the pieces together remains to be seen.
"I think we've got a whole lot more to do," Stringer said. "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."