Loss hurts tournament seeding
Shots went up, clanked off the back iron and fell into the fingertips of South Florida defenders.
For nearly the first six minutes last night at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, nothing fell through the net for the Rutgers women’s basketball team.
With the AAC Tournament’s third seed on the line, the nation’s 24th-ranked team hardly played like it. The Knights settled for awkward shots, dribbled frenetically and poorly boxed out on the glass to dig themselves into a 9-0 hole.
Rutgers fought back, made its runs and brought the RAC crowd to its feet down the stretch. But with 57 seconds left and USF up, 54-51, guard Courtney Williams drained a dagger 3-pointer to seal an eventual 60-51 Bulls win and third place in the AAC.
With No. 1 UConn’s victory at No. 3 Louisville last night, South Florida (18-11, 13-5) ensured a path to the conference title game that does not include the Huskies.
The Knights (21-8, 12-6), meanwhile, must live with a precarious future beyond the conference tournament. ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme projected yesterday only three AAC teams to make the NCAA Tournament field.
“This one hurts much more because it has big implications, and I don’t even want to go into them,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “This team knows what the implications were — missed opportunity, what else can you say?”
The game’s climax perhaps stung the most.
Junior wing Betnijah Laney took a hard foul with 1:27 left and converted two free throws to bring Rutgers within one possession for the first time since 9:34 left in the first half. Sophomore wing Kahleah Copper drained a layup with 3:49 left to make it 52-47.
After South Florida clung to 11- and 9-point leads for much of the final 20 minutes, Rutgers looked poised to complete a dramatic comeback in its regular-season finale.
But as the Bulls kept responding, the Knights’ frustrations continued to mount.
“When you’re down, you can’t trade baskets. We had to be able to maintain and get stops, and we didn’t do that,” Laney said. “It seemed like every time we would score they would come down and score.”
The Knights failed to contain Williams all night long.
The guard collected 19 of her game-high 26 points in the second half, also finishing with 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks.
Rutgers spent much of conference play trying to stiffen its perimeter defense, and the Bulls shot just 3-for-14 from the 3-point range.
Williams burned the Knights only twice from beyond the 3-point arc, but her second came when it counted most.
“Coming into the second half we began to shoot out over her — not chopping our feet out, and she ball-faked and went around us,” said junior guard Syessence Davis. “She got like 6 to 8 easy points off that.”
On the final leg of a three-game stretch in six days, Davis carried the load of a Rutgers team that saw its top-three scorers all finish in single figures.
The Neptune (N.J.) High School product led a 9-4 run with 7 points to make it 13-9 early on.
Guard Tyler Scaife hit a jumper to bring Rutgers within one possession with 9:34 to go in the first half, but for the second-straight game, the breakout freshman was virtually a nonfactor.
Coming off a one-game absence with turf toe, Copper shot just 2-for-11 from the field.
Rutgers, which committed 10 first-half turnovers and missed its first six shots, simply looked flat.
“At the end of the day when you see Esse and Rachel [Hollivay] as high scorers, and you see Esse and Bri [Canty] as high rebounders, then you know something’s wrong,” Stringer said. “We just didn’t get it done. We worked hard, but I think they came out very confident, challenged us, point us back on our heels and we didn’t respond until too late.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.