June 24, 2018 | ° F

Laney fixes freshman timidity to fill Sykes’ void

At her best, former Rutgers women’s basketball forward April Sykes could exploit a defense almost anywhere on the court.

She led the Scarlet Knights with 40 3-pointers last year while also posing as a threat in the post.

The Los Angeles Sparks forward played her final year at Rutgers on a team with eight upperclassmen.

That number is down to four this season.

With no upperclassman to replace Sykes along the wing, head coach C. Vivian Stringer’s vision is still formulating.

“The best thing about the sophomores is they’re not freshmen anymore,” Stringer said Oct. 25 at the Scarlet Knights’ media day.

Sophomore wing Betnijah Laney is an obvious answer to replace Sykes. Stringer frequently invested in Laney, who led the Knights rookies with 668 minutes and 11 starts her freshman year. But her production came with rookie mistakes.

It was common for Laney to appear with three seniors and then-junior center Monique Oliver. The surrounding experience ironically hurt her play.

“There was a lot [of pressure] because I guess being a freshman, you make more mistakes,” Laney said, “and I didn’t want to do that because they’re all experienced, not making many mistakes.”

When Laney ran down the court, her cousin, former point guard Khadijah Rushdan, was often behind her. Rushdan was also aggressive enough to storm in front of Laney for layups or interior play.

Laney has three inches on Rushdan and a high school pedigree to compare — she was the No. 11 prospect in the nation in 2011 — but her nerves exposed her.

Laney now wants to be more like the consistent catalyst Rushdan was.

“I’m definitely more comfortable, more confident in what I need to do, so there will be more aggression,” Laney said. “Last year I was a little shaken, but this year will be different.”

But for the Clayton, Del., product to replace Sykes, Laney needs to improve her shooting stroke after posting a .378 field goal percentage last year.

That will be a collective effort in which senior guard Erica Wheeler might need to be ringleader.

Wheeler led Rutgers last year with a .302 3-point percentage off 39 baskets, which is no longer good enough this season.

Besides Wheeler, Laney and sophomore guard Shakena Richardson are the only returning players to make at least five 3-pointers.

“We come here late nights and shoot, so there’s late-night shooting,” Wheeler said. “Then we do a little bit of shooting in practice. It’s mainly just getting that muscle memory down pat.”

Wheeler and Laney ended last year leaving different impressions.

Wheeler completed her junior season playing all but three minutes in the final two games, leading the team in scoring in both with 13 and 28 points in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, respectively.

“Who could forget Erica Wheeler?” Stringer said. “I don’t think there’s another player who will extend themselves as much as Erica. She gives everything she possibly can.”

Laney finished the year still with significant minutes — she played 17 and then 16 minutes in the final two games — but former guard Nikki Speed took Laney’s starting job during the season, sacrificing size with experience.

Laney knows it is now time to show she has both.

“I just want to be more consistent, not be timid and just always go out and play the best game that I can,” Laney said.

For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Josh Bakan on Twitter @JBakanTargum.

By Josh Bakan

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