October 20, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers makes case for NCAA

Photo by Tian Li |

Sophomore wing Betnijah Laney heaves a shot over Villanova guard Rachel Roberts. Laney scored eight points Saturday in overtime, including the Knights’ first six.

This year’s Rutgers women’s basketball team has been different from most.

The Scarlet Knights have sold a stumbling product that fewer are paying to see, and often the crowd noise of the Louis Brown Athletic Center has been muffled to the point where the referees can vividly hear hoarse hecklers.

But in the closing minutes of Rutgers’ 58-50 overtime victory Saturday against Villanova, sophomore wing Betnijah Laney stood with the game ball on the vibrating RAC hardwood as a standing ovation surrounded her.

In all likelihood, more than the hecklers left the RAC yesterday without a voice. Head coach C. Vivian Stringer heard a different one.

“I was telling them that in the opera there’s always a fat lady that sings. She’s been humming,” Stringer said. “You can see her warming her voice up. Get ready to go. We heard a voice.”

Laney was unaccustomed to this limelight, even trembling a bit when called upon in the small postgame press conference.

The Clayton, Del., native had to mature during her sophomore year, a season after sharing the court with four upperclassmen at a time.

Stringer gave Laney a new obstacle of playing the four position most of the game as the Knights (13-8, 4-4) executed a small-ball approach, moving away from a philosophy to take advantage of what Stringer calls her tallest team ever.

The 6-foot-1 Laney then shifted to the five with four guards at her back in the closing minutes and overtime.

Villanova forward Laura Sweeney fouled out with 4:07 left in overtime after recording 11 points and 10 rebounds.

Her absence opened up holes for Laney, who made three bank shots, scoring eight points in overtime. The play was simple: feed Laney in the post to make layups.

“If I don’t make it, we don’t get points, we don’t win,” Laney said.

The small-ball approach was Stringer’s tactic for a Villanova offense known for crafty isolations that exploit a defense’s weaknesses.

“I thought that if we went with all the little people, then we would be able to more quickly move and be able to switch as we needed and to be much more effective,” Stringer said.

The Wildcats (16-5, 5-3) took advantage well enough to lead for almost the entire first two halves.

Then sophomore point guard Shakena Richardson led a surge that exploited Villanova’s defensive weakness en route to posting 14 points, seven boards and seven assists — all team highs. Several of her baskets came off driving layups.

“Against us, everybody gets penetration,” said Villanova head coach Harry Perretta. “That’s why we play our big kids in the paint. We’re not real athletic on the perimeter.”

Richardson stood at the free throw line as Rutgers trailed, 46-45, with eight seconds left. Her first free throw rattled off the rim.

Then a swish on the second attempt tied the game.

On the play to set Richardson’s free throws, Wheeler stole the ball from Sweeney. Rutgers did its best to get the ball to Richardson when Sweeney committed her fourth foul on Richardson’s drive.

After a long game in which Rutgers shot layups at a 2-for-8 clip in the first half, Stringer’s small-ball approach worked. The Knights effectively guarded Sweeney without a true four or five on the court and then gave Richardson a scoring opportunity and Sweeney another foul.

Perretta, who is likely to lead Villanova to the NCAA Tournament, blamed himself for keeping Sweeney in too long. She played 39 minutes.

“We played zone a lot in the first half to try to take that away,” Perretta said of Rutgers’ backcourt penetration. “I even thought about zone on the last possession of the game, but it’s just not our philosophy to do that.”

Beating a quality Big East team also gave Stringer confidence in her philosophy. For one game, Rutgers became the team that drew its past attention.

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

By Josh Bakan

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