RU focuses on perimeter ‘D’ in rematch
As she sat down at the podium following the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s most lopsided win of the season Saturday, C. Vivian Stringer could not help but smile.
The head coach had much to be proud of: season highs of 90 points on 60-percent shooting and 23 assists, as well as a season-low six turnovers. It all came together for the Scarlet Knights with the year winding down and postseason approaching.
Yet something else impressed Stringer even more.
When the University had a snow day last Thursday, the players met on their own and took it upon themselves to break down film.
The Knights returned to practice the next day and proved to Stringer that they did not need to see any more video of turnovers or faulty perimeter defense, among other glaring issues.
“Just to be mature — knowing what it is that we need to do — that’s more important than us as coaches telling them,” Stringer said. “They will police and check themselves, and when you do that, then we begin to arrive. We’re still young people that are still growing, but I think that we’re taking much more ownership now.”
Accountability has Rutgers (20-5, 11-3) on a five-game winning streak and back in the AP Poll this week at No. 25. But the last time the Knights were ranked, they promptly dropped two straight and three of five.
They have the chance to make amends Sunday night at No. 5 Louisville, which handed Rutgers its most recent loss Jan. 28.
On that night at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, the Knights let a 6-point second-half lead slip away. With 11 minutes to go, the Cardinals (26-2, 14-1) went on a 14-2 run to seize command.
They burned Rutgers with five 3-pointers, including three from guard Shoni Schimmel, who leads the AAC and ranks fifth in the nation with 3.4 per game.
“Knowing great players, we’re never going to stop her completely, but we’ve got to slow her down,” said sophomore wing Kahleah Copper. “We’re just going to play our defense and contest the shots, and we’re not going to run at her — we’re going to come at her and control her.”
Copper said Rutgers’ issue defending Schimmel on Jan. 28 was running past her on defensive rotations, giving the guard space to pull up uncontested shots.
The Knights were also slow to help whenever Louisville penetrated Rutgers’ 2-3 zone defense, giving the Cardinals too many high-percentage looks.
“They got into the middle of our 2-3 a lot, too, so we’ve got to shut that down,” said freshman guard Tyler Scaife. “They hit a lot of easy shots towards the middle a little bit, so we’ve just got to shut that down. But besides that, I feel like we matched up evenly with them.”
Rutgers did play on par with Louisville for the better part of 40 minutes, despite arguably the Knights’ two best players sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble.
Junior wing Betnijah Laney went to the bench after picking up her second foul 5:56 in. Copper was slapped with her third and a technical for jumping up and down in frustration at the 13:18 mark.
The duo combined to finish with only 14 points on 4-for-12 field goal shooting. Scaife kept the Knights afloat with a team-high 25 points — Rutgers’ only double-figure scorer on the night.
“I’ve got to be calm,” Copper said. “I was worked up and I got a little too excited and then I got frustrated, so I’ve just got to come out and just be alert and just be calm.”
Nerves were among Stringer’s few explanations for the late collapse against a top-5 team. She now sees signs of maturity.
The Knights have still been consistently strong this season. They are close to locking up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But save for a 3-point victory Dec. 21 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center against then-No. 16 Georgia, Rutgers lacks signature wins.
The Knights want validation.
“This’ll give us our stamp by knocking off Louisville,” Scaife said. “I feel like people understand what we have and how good we are, but I feel like we need one more big win, especially over Louisville. That’ll be huge because they were in the championship last year.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.