Knights lead from outset in rout at RAC
The closest the Rutgers women's basketball team was to finding itself in a game with Central Connecticut State may have been at tipoff, when both squads were tied at zero.
Junior Nikki Speed sank a 3-pointer a little over a minute later for the game's first bucket, and the Scarlet Knights never looked back from there, coasting to a 73-32 victory.
After a narrow victory against the Blue Devils a season ago, head coach C. Vivian Stringer made sure her team was well prepared this time around.
"You really think I was going to sit back and say, ‘Well, here comes Central Connecticut and we're not going to worry about them — we're just going to wait until Georgetown comes?'" Stringer said. "Are you kidding me? No, I've been fired up, I have really been on edge."
The Knights trailed by as many as seven and escaped with just a nine-point victory the last time the two teams faced, but this time around Stringer's defense absolutely smothered the Blue Devils.
CCS registered just 16 points in both halves and finished the game shooting a meager 21.8 percent from the field.
After Temple got open looks all game against Stringer's defense its last time out, the team went back to work in its return to Piscataway.
"Last year's close game, [Stringer] talked about that maybe twice," Speed said. "The biggest thing with her was the Temple game. She's not going to let us live that down. Our defense in the last second … she stressed that a lot this week I guess you could say.
"It was a good job on our part just to stay together, keep talking to each other and know we have to buckle down on defense."
Speed recorded her best career game, as the Marlborough (Calif.) School product finished the game with a career-high 17 points off 5-for-10 shooting to go with four assists.
The guard knocked down her final bucket from the field at the 8:45 mark from beyond the arc, improving her stat line to 3-for-4 from 3-point range.
Stringer subbed Speed out of the game almost a minute later and the point guard jogged off the court to the Rutgers (5-3) bench to the tune of thunderous applause.
Speed was not alone on the offensive side, as three other players for the Knights also scored in double figures — Khadijah Rushdan (14), Monique Oliver (10) and April Sykes (18).
Sykes caught fire in the second half, scoring 12 points to go along with two assists and three rebounds.
The Starkville, Miss., native was just two points shy of tying her career-high, but the play of Rushdan and Speed was what allowed her to thrive.
"I can't take all the credit. Nikki and Khadijah, they do a great job of getting me the ball," Sykes said. "I think I'm more relaxed, I'm more confident and I'm not worried about a lot — I'm just going out there and playing ball."
For both teams, the first half did not yield much scoring.
The Blue Devils (5-1) put just 16 points on the board while Rutgers shot a lowly 38.5 percent from the field, giving Stringer and Co. just a 14-point lead heading into the locker room at half.
Credit the Rutgers defense, as the squad forced Central Connecticut into 10 turnovers in the period and held the NEC opponent to a 30 percent shooting clip from the field.
The Knights came away with five of their seven total steals, with two belonging to sophomore guard Erica Wheeler, who also scored seven points off the bench.
Central Connecticut's Kerrianne Dugan led all scorers in the half with 12 points and went on to finish with a game-high 19 points.
Stringer highlighted defense as a focal point after the team's loss to Temple earlier in the week, and even though the Knights did play a lower-caliber opponent, improvements on the defensive side were evident.
"Today we played good defense," Stringer said. "What I like to see is, I'd like to come in here each time and say, ‘We played good defense.' As I said to the team, more often than not, when we play good defense, we're going to win."