Sophomore taps into potential at Tourney
It all came down to a practice drill.
Sophomore guard Nikki Speed saw a gap in the defenders and, instead of pulling up short or forcing a pass, she attacked.
And, just like that, Rutgers women's basketball head coach C. Vivian Stringer saw the light bulb go on in Speed's head.
"She told me today, ‘Attack the gaps,' and as many times as she's told me that before I don't think she ever said I got it until today," Speed said with a grin. "So our relationship goes back and forth."
Stringer always says she expects the most from her guards, and one look at her past rosters leaves nothing to question. And when three of the guards on the Scarlet Knights in the past decade were standouts — Cappie Pondexter, Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon — the bar is set that much higher.
Never one to mince words, Stringer is always crystal clear with her players. When the former McDonald's All-American did not live up to her billing as a freshman — averaging 1.9 points per game and 41 turnovers versus 34 assists — Stringer let her know.
But the untapped potential of Speed was always there, Stringer said, it was just a matter of getting through.
"I see it every day now, even in practice," Stringer said days after Rutgers beat Louisville behind a seven point, six rebound and six assist performance from Speed. "I watched her in the game and I said, ‘Wow. Wow, I'm glad I wasn't wrong.'
"I thought Nikki could be one of the finest, then I watched her struggle over the year and a half and get a little frustrated. It's not that she doesn't work — she does — and I enjoy talking to Nikki because her eyes are open and she's always willing to accept."
Those eyes were not always open.
While Stringer knew what she wanted from Speed the moment she arrived in Piscataway, the same could not always be the said the other way around.
The then-freshman thought she knew what her commitment to the Knights entailed, but was about to meet the Stringer that showed up at game time and practice — the Stringer that accepted no excuses and never settled.
"She's a completely different person off the court," Speed said. "When I came here people told me ‘Okay, she's pretty strict on the court, you're not going to understand.' And I was like, ‘Okay, I'm used to that, I've been yelled at.'"
Ultimately, Speed was not prepared, looking skittish on the court and sullen on the bench. More times than not, she would be seen leaving the court with her head down, looking at the floor.
But midway through this season, a funny thing happened.
As Speed and her teammates went through their own trials, the guard's demeanor changed. Speed said she learned to stop taking the things Stringer told her personally and that it was the meaning of the message that was most important.
The change did not go unnoticed by her teammates.
"Nikki has been doing really well," said senior guard Brittany Ray. "Her freshman year, she would get yelled at and totally shut down. But this year, in the past few weeks, she's been a little bit more resilient. … She'll transfer the information that Coach Stringer gives her.
"I think she's doing a great job and if she just continues to trust Coach Stringer and trust the program she's going to be a great player."
The information in question is essentially the keys to the driver seat that is the Knights' offense.
Stringer worked to make her understand. She played Speed at the point. She played Speed at shooting guard so the youngster could watch the plays unfold from a different perspective. And she waited for that elusive light to switch on.
"Part of being a point guard is understanding your personnel," Stringer said. "If you have stone hands, you have to deliver the ball in a certain way. I think it began to click, maybe, by Nikki not playing the point.
"You don't have to have your hands on the ball, you can orchestrate how you want things to go if you see two or three passes ahead of time. Nikki will tend to think that she has to be the one to make the play. … It's like being a conductor. You can conduct even without touching, you have to see it and feel it."
Struggles from her first year aside, Speed continued to work through her sophomore season as Stringer's messages finally started to get through. And as she continued to develop, the player-coach relationship continued to grow.
"She's a sweet lady off the court but so different on the court," Speed said. "That caught me off guard when I first got up here so it took me some time to get used to that. I've learned now."
Speed's bumpy learning curve is not unlike her team's season.
Flashes of brilliance and ability are followed with disappointing defeat and the notion that one play or errant pass could have changed an entire game.
"It's been hectic," Speed said. "I've had Coach Stringer on me, Coach [Tasha Pointer], Coach [Carlene] Mitchell and Coach [Ron] Hughey. Hectic. I'm just trying to be able to relax and help my teammates. I feel helpless when I can't help them."
The guard played 52 total minutes in her first four games this season, then followed it up by playing 69 in her next two games. She delivered a shining performance early in the season — 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals against Southern California — only to tail off again.
In the final game of the Knights' out-of-conference schedule, a disastrous loss to Atlantic 10 Conference bottom-feeder George Washington, Speed played only 16 minutes as Rutgers handed the Colonials one of their meager six wins on the season.
"All of us can feel the roller coaster [of the season], whether or not we want to, we feel it," Speed said. "[Winning is] exciting. We love being on the peak. But once we go down, everybody goes down — our mentality, our confidence, everything goes down."
Speed's minutes hovered in the mid-20s until the team's regular season contest against Georgetown, during which the guard had as many points through 32 minutes as she did turnovers — eight. The listless Knights lost that game 59-50.
But instead of abandoning her guard, Stringer increased Speed's minutes as the season came to a close. In the Knights' final regular season games against Providence and Louisville — crucial games that likely decided their NCAA Tournament fate — Speed played 32 and 37 minutes, respectively, delivering in each contest.
"She's doing a wonderful job and I watched her do incredible things and said ‘Wow,'" Stringer said. "First of all the way she played in the [Louisville] game makes me feel real good and the lights went on."
Looking back, Stringer's words the day before her team left for the Big East Tournament in Hartford, Conn. seem eerily prophetic.
"I'll tell you what," Stringer said. "If Nikki is doing what everybody else is seeing, we're going to be pretty doggone tough. … I think the future for the Scarlet Knights looks bright, based upon what I've seen just now and the feeling [that people are settling in]."
Faith in her guard high, Stringer played Speed the entire 40 minutes in the Knights' first game against Cincinnati, a 70-44 rout of the Bearcats.
Alternating between the one and two-guard positions as she has all year, Speed appeared as confident on the hardwood as she has all year distributing the ball. Though she shot only 1-of-9 from the floor, Stringer said Speed looked loose and relaxed on the court.
One night later in overtime, no one looked relaxed against No. 12 Georgetown.
Down three, Stringer swapped Speed in favor of freshman Erica Wheeler, whose smooth jump shot and solid range made her a perfect candidate for the game's savior.
But with an open look at the game-tying basket, Wheeler opted to drive to the basket instead, losing control of the ball, which bounced off of a Georgetown player and out of bounds.
Beside herself, Stringer pulled Wheeler and reinserted Speed. The guard took the inbounds pass, picked up a screen and — from two feet beyond the men's three-point line — drained the basket to tie the game with 2.2 seconds left on the clock.
"I'll say it's the biggest [shot I've ever made]," Speed said. "I wasn't even really thinking about it. All of us kept saying ‘We're not going home.'"
With her second three-pointer of the game coming in double-overtime, Speed ensured that the Knights would take the floor at the XL Center again this season, if only for one more time.
When the final buzzer sounded and the Knights converged on the court, a stoic-looking Speed glanced up at the scoreboard before joining her teammates to celebrate.
It glowed 63-56, with Rutgers coming out on top.
"Thank you," she mouthed silently.
With Selection Monday looming, the Knights' 19 wins and impressive strength of schedule should be enough to punch a ticket to the Big Dance.
Rutgers and Speed were there last season, beating Virginia Commonwealth in their first game and tearing through Auburn in the second, only to be ousted in a loss to Purdue.
Many things remain undecided for the Knights. Their NCAA seeding and first round opponent are a mystery. Even more of a mystery is whether they have finally put their early-season demons behind them.
But out of the gloom, one entity is becoming more and more clear.
Nikki Speed, the emerging floor general, the only player on the Knights' nine person roster to have more assists than turnovers this season.
"I never have to worry about her dragging things because she's going to bust her tail doing everything that you want," Stringer said. "Nikki wants to please. She just needs to be confident."
And what about that confidence?
Look no further than the answer Speed gave when asked what she thought about her game-changing three-pointer that sent the quarterfinal game against the Hoyas into double overtime and the Knights' bench into a frenzy.
Speed did not hesitate to answer the question. She only smiled.
"I called it," she said.