Knights approach NCAA status
As the wins continue to pile up, the Rutgers women’s basketball team continues to solidify its NCAA Tournament resume.
Though they lack many marquee victories, the Scarlet Knights (18-5, 9-3) have fended off the majority of unranked opponents and avoided bad losses.
Rutgers extended its winning streak to three games Saturday at Southern Methodist after rallying from 9 points down in the final two minutes. Last Tuesday the Knights survived a second-half comeback from Cincinnati at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
Charlie Creme, ESPN.com’s women’s basketball Bracketology expert, currently projects Rutgers as one of four No. 9 seeds in next month’s 64-team NCAA field. That would pair the Knights with an 8-seed in the first round and potentially a 1-seed in the second round.
Rutgers, one of only three AAC teams expected to receive an at-large bid, has another chance to impact its resume tonight at Houston.
But the Knights have more to lose than gain.
A loss to the last-place Cougars (5-18, 1-11) would significantly hurt Rutgers’ chances of getting ranked in the AP Top 25 again this season.
The Knights would also potentially become a bubble team for the NCAAs since the majority of lower seeds are reserved for weaker conference champions’ automatic bids.
The odds of that happening, though, are farfetched.
Rutgers, which averaged just 56 points per game last season, has eclipsed 60 in 21 of 23 games this season. At least three Knights have scored double figures in 17 contests.
When the Knights missed the NCAAs last year for the first time since 2002, their outside shooting was limited and their balance was sometimes nonexistent.
Developing an up-tempo, versatile offense became a priority over the summer.
“I think that was something that we really worked on, because we know from observing previous years that we have to be able to get out in transition and be able to score in different ways,” junior wing Betnijah Laney said last week. “That was just a major focus for us, and we’ve done a good job of demonstrating that for [head coach C. Vivian Stringer] and for ourselves.”
The Knights are sharing the ball at a high level, sparked by the assertive dribble penetration and midrange shooting of freshman Tyler Scaife.
Last year’s No. 1 point guard recruit was named AAC Rookie of the Week on Monday for the fourth time in five weeks after averaging 14 points, three assists and two steals in two games.
Scaife has almost singlehandedly kept Rutgers in games for stretches when Laney and sophomore wing Kahleah Copper — two other Knights averaging double-figuring scoring — get off to slow starts.
It has provided a luxury for Stringer unseen in Rutgers’ recent history.
“One’s good, two’s better, three’s great, four’s even better than that,” Stringer said last week of her scoring options. “What happens is that if one person’s down, then you have another two people that can pick it up. That’s true about Betnijah, Kahleah and Tyler because they’ve been the most consistent double-digit scoring people here.”
There was no exception Jan. 4 in Rutgers’ first meeting with Houston at the RAC.
Laney’s 10 first-half points kept the Knights close as they started sluggish and trailed the Cougars by 1 at halftime. Copper exploded for 19 points in the second half as Rutgers ended up winning by 21.
Rutgers’ bench has also helped offset slow starts, generating 29 total points the last two games.
“Just to continue to keep the intensity up, and don’t come off the bench lacking in energy,” sophomore guard Briyona Canty said last week of the second unit’s mindset.
Playing with essentially four guards and one big man in the starting lineup this season has opened up Rutgers’ offense.
The 6-foot Laney’s versatility in driving, posting up and shooting from the perimeter diverts attention from 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Rachel Hollivay.
Hollivay has lately produced more consistently, averaging 10.5 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and 64.3 percent shooting last week in garnering her second AAC Honor Roll selection.
“If we can get — and I feel much more comfortable than I did at the beginning of the year — contributions from everyone else, then that’s very helpful,” Stringer said. “I thought that Alexis [Burke], Precious [Person], Bri [Canty] coming off the bench, as well as Christa [Evans] and everybody else, they’re able to contribute. So I feel like we have a total team.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.