No. 5 Cards offer upset chance
With its win Saturday at Temple, the Rutgers women’s basketball team proved once again it has few problems beating inferior teams.
The Scarlet Knights (15-4, 6-2) are 14-2 against unranked teams, with all but two of those wins coming by double digits. Their lone blemishes were one-point losses Nov. 2 at Massachusetts and in overtime Jan. 14 at Memphis.
“We’ve talked about two things: being the hunter or being hunted,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer postgame Saturday. “We probably were the hunted in this situation, and it’s interesting to see how we handle that. When we were at Memphis, we were the hunted. It’s important for us as a group to understand what the psychology behind all of that has to be and the basic mindset when people come back and they make runs.”
The jury is still out on this Rutgers team as the hunter — a role it will assume again tonight against No. 5 Louisville at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
The Knights are 1-2 against ranked opponents this season, first falling by 4 points Nov. 29 to then-No. 15 LSU on a neutral floor before topping then-No. 16 Georgia on Dec. 21 by 3 points at the RAC.
The only underdog contest where Rutgers was uncompetitive came Jan. 19 against No. 1 Connecticut — a program widely acknowledged as significantly ahead of the rest of the nation.
The Cardinals (20-1, 8-0) are statistically the clear No. 2 in the AAC behind the Huskies. Louisville tops the conference with 84.1 and 46.1 rebounds per game and ranks second in scoring margin, outscoring their opponents by 25 points per game.
The defending national runner-ups are more vulnerable on the defensive end, where they allow nearly 60 points per contest. Rutgers, meanwhile, ranks second in the AAC in scoring defense with 57.3 points allowed per game.
But the Knights’ biggest deficiencies now lie in half-court offense, where they struggled to generate consistent ball movement and open looks against Temple.
Sophomore forward Rachel Hollivay’s early foul trouble compounded the issue. Hollivay picked up three fouls in the game’s first 21 minutes, forcing Stringer to spell Rutgers’ most formidable post player.
Then junior forward Christa Evans left the game at the 14:51 mark of the second half with an undisclosed injury, leaving the Knights without their two tallest post players.
Stringer then had to make defensive adjustments to generate transition offense.
“We continued through the man [defense] and they were attacking, going to the free-throw line,” Stringer said. “They got plenty of foul shots, and so we decided to go ahead and switch it up, begin to press with the ‘55.’”
Rutgers’ half-man, half-zone full-court press overwhelmed the Owls and helped the Knights rack up deflections, steals and transition buckets.
But Louisville is second in the conference in turnover margin, forcing 4.05 more than their opponents. That makes it all the more imperative for Rutgers to be effective offensively in the half court.
“We’ve just got to count on Rachel getting better, stronger, staying out of foul trouble,” Stringer said.
Luckily for Rutgers, Louisville’s tallest starter measures at 6-foot-2, as 6-foot-4 center Sheronne Vails redshirted earlier this season following knee surgery. That should allow junior wing Betnijah Laney and sophomore guard Kahleah Copper to exploit the paint.
The Cardinals have also scarcely been tested this season, with just two wins against ranked opponents. Rutgers is 27th in votes in this week’s AP Top 25 Poll after defeating Temple and Central Florida last week.
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.