Stringer finally lights fire with WNIT refusal
In the game of chess, sometimes one must make sacrifices to accomplish the ultimate goal. Backed into check by the rest of the Big East, Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer put everything on the line with a daring move of her most valuable piece.
Stringer flat-out refused to accept an invitation to the Women's National Invitation Tournament, digging the Scarlet Knights deeper into check — they responded in the exact way Stringer wanted.
Like a pawn promoted to queen on the other end of the board, the Knights came out like a different team in the last two games and played their way back into the NCAA Tournament.
Defeating the Providence Friars by 11 points on their home court, behind 23 points and seven boards by senior Brittany Ray, was a nice touch, but the kicker came Monday on Senior Night in a trouncing of Louisville — picked to finish third in the Big East at the start of the season.
RU put together its most complete performance in conference play, and maybe all year, winning the turnover battle, points in the paint, second chance points, bench points and shooting a season-high 52 percent from the floor.
On paper, it's simply another win that jumps RU to 16-13 on the year and 9-7 in the Big East, but it also brings on a new confidence going into the Big East Tournament.
The team played so well that it even earned its locker room back.
"[Stringer] said that we have to give a great effort in the Big East," said senior forward Myia McCurdy on the terms of getting back the locker room. "Because if we don't, then she's going to put us right back in that [smaller] locker room."
Is this enough momentum to recapture the Big East Title won in 2006?
Probably not. Actually, definitely not, with one of the best teams in the history of the sport playing on the other side of the bracket.
Is it enough momentum to make a serious push and cement a berth in the NCAA Tournament?
Signs point to yes.
The Knights have a first round bye and what should be an easy win in the second round — facing either South Florida or Cincinnati, both of which lost to RU earlier in the year without much of a fight.
Then RU would get No. 12 Georgetown. The Hoyas are intimidating, playing Connecticut closer than almost any other team, but they only beat the Knights by nine points. And that win came at home during the worst stretch of the season for the Knights.
Georgetown is a very winnable game for RU and is a potential semifinal clash with West Virginia, which squeaked by the Knights in Morgantown.
The Knights do not have the luxury of looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament this year, but a mediocre performance may get them there anyway. RU might still steal an invitation with a first round loss, but as long as the team is still in Hartford, Conn., Sunday night, its bid should be safe.
"It was good for us to be not as strained as we were [Monday], but we have been dropping our heads after so many games," Stringer said. "It could have, should have. If we had only made a free throw, if we had only blocked out, if we had only executed a little better — I really feel that we can play with 98 percent of the teams we play. It could be a different story."
It's tough to judge whether the team is finally on its stride after just two wins. It looked like RU was back after three straight wins and a near upset of WVU earlier in the year, but Syracuse shattered all of that the next game with a 31-point fiasco.
But if RU is back, credit Stringer, who yet again pulled off an unconventional maneuver to motivate her team and credit Ray, who continued to play hard through extremely demanding stretches of her senior year.
"That is what coach Stringer is used to — getting to the NCAA's," said Ray on the team's motivation to qualify for the Tournament. "She wouldn't want anything less. We continue to play hard and just continue to do what we need to do as a team. I think that it will work out and pay off for all of us."
Taking away the locker rooms and the practice jerseys might not get the same effect that they did in years past for Stringer, but with her threat to decline a WNIT bid, she certainly has a few team motivation tricks up her sleeve.
Sam Hellman accepts comments and criticism at firstname.lastname@example.org