New-look RU gets chance to avenge humiliating loss
In a season where 14 of the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s first 20 wins came by double digits, a more hard-fought 21st victory gave head coach C. Vivian Stringer a sense of how far the Scarlet Knights have come.
Although No. 24 Rutgers led wire-to-wire Wednesday night, on several occasions it had to fend off a pesky Temple (12-15, 6-10) team that refused to relent.
The Knights held an 11-point advantage early in the first half, but entered halftime only up three. They led by as many as nine in the second half, and then saw their lead shrink back to three.
No matter what angle the Owls tried to expose Rutgers defensively, the Knights kept responding.
“It was good that they challenged us, but most importantly, it was good that we answered the call,” Stringer said postgame. “We played them a little differently than we played them the first time. We recognized that they were attacking us a lot, so we went to the zones, which was helpful.”
Tomorrow the Knights (21-6, 12-4) must make their biggest adjustments to date in a rematch with the defending national champions in Storrs, Conn.
Back on Jan. 19 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, No. 1 UConn (29-0, 16-0) handed Rutgers a 30-point humiliation — its worst of the season and one of only two double-digit losses.
For as much prowess as the Knights tend to show offensively on fast breaks, the Huskies exposed flaws Rutgers had getting back defensively in transition.
UConn exploded into an 18-6 lead in less than five minutes, finishing with 20 fast-break points, despite the fact Rutgers turned the ball over just 10 times.
Huskies guard Bria Hartley finished with six 3-pointers from the perimeter, while likely AP Player of the Year in 6-foot-4 forward Breanna Stewart was a mismatch all over the floor for Rutgers en route to 23 points and nine rebounds.
But Rutgers has seen fundamental progress since.
Freshman guard Tyler Scaife, known for her quickness and versatile offensive game, has lately been more conscious defensively. Staying low and shuffling her feet is stiffening the top of Rutgers’ 2-3 zone, where Scaife is responsible for staying in front of guards at the perimeter.
The Knights also have more depth in the paint. With sophomore forward Rachel Hollivay producing inconsistently, Stringer shuffled her lineup Wednesday and gave sophomore Ariel Butts a start in the paint.
The Columbus, Ga., native provided a spark with season highs of 8 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes.
“She did a great job. She’s been working really hard in practice, and so I think what she’s doing in practice is being displayed in the games,” said junior wing Betnijah Laney. “It was really good to see that we’re versatile in the post, so we have three different body types, three different styles of play. It was good to be able to have someone else in there that can also get it done.”
With just two games left before the AAC Tournament, finding as much versatility up and down the lineup as possible is most important to Stringer.
A win against the undefeated Huskies is farfetched, but the Knights still have a chance to make a statement.
“That’s important, that’s encouraging because then the players do not have to feel that they have to stay in there too long to the point where they start messing up,” Stringer said. “... At the championship levels, when you’re playing back-to-back games, and then traveling the distances that we are, if you have five people — I don’t care how good they are — they’re not going to be able to sustain.”