Rookie lifts Knights to first WNIT title
It all came down to one play.
The emotional tolls, the eight-day road trip and the final fate of a season spanning five months hinged on the outcome of one last shot.
In front of a sold-out Don Haskins Center of 12,221 in El Paso, Texas, the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s 18-point second-half lead had vanished. But it was the very reason head coach C. Vivian Stringer wanted to play in the WNIT, and she got her money’s worth.
After UTEP tied the score at 54 on a put-back layup with seven seconds remaining, freshman guard Tyler Scaife drove baseline-to-baseline and banked home the game-winning layup with 2.1 seconds left Saturday, giving the Scarlet Knights their first-ever WNIT Championship.
The Miners (29-8) had to go the length of the floor on the inbound and were unable to get off one last shot as their home building went silent with a 56-54 defeat.
Meanwhile, the Knights (28-9) celebrated the culmination of what considerably made up for missing the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in 12 seasons. Sophomore wing Kahleah Copper garnered Tournament MVP, while Scaife earned All-Tournament Team honors.
“I just knew that we had to get down the floor and score, so I just rushed through the court and shot a layup and it went in,” Scaife told reporters postgame. “There were two defenders in front of me and I split them, they just left it open too wide. I’m happy it went in. ... I’m just happy we finished the season off like this.”
The happy ending was in serious jeopardy down the stretch, but as they did all tournament, the Knights found a way.
Two free throws from guard Chrishauna Parker gave UTEP a 50-48 lead — its first since early in the first half — with 5:05 left. That capped a 34-14 run and furious second-half rally by the Miners, rejuvenating the sell-out crowd.
Then Rutgers buckled down defensively at the perimeter, holding UTEP to just one field goal the rest of the way.
Scaife, who tied Copper with a game-high 18 points, sparked a 6-0 Knights run with a free throw and go-ahead jumper with 2:29 left. With her swish shot from the elbow, Scaife passed now-WNBA star Cappie Pondexter for the most points in a freshman season in Rutgers history.
With the Knights up 2 with 1:32 left, sophomore forward Rachel Hollivay stuffed UTEP’s layup attempt, then came down the floor and banked in an assist from sophomore guard Briyona Canty down low to extend Rutgers’ lead to 54-50.
Two missed front ends of one-and-ones at the line for Rutgers helped pave UTEP’s last equalizers before Scaife’s game winner.
“Give credit to UTEP,” Stringer told reporters. “Great crowd, outstanding team and a great coaching job. They really truly are an outstanding team. I think that, easily, UTEP could’ve been an NCAA [tournament] team.”
The Miners’ four threes, sound ball security and defensive intensity in the second half mounted pressure on the Knights, who came close to wilting in a hostile environment.
Junior wing Betnijah Laney uncharacteristically lost control of the ball in the corner with 10:58 left. Copper couldn’t hang on to a rebound about a minute later, and then traveled with 5:29 left before UTEP tied the game at 48.
Yet when the game ultimately threatened to get away, Rutgers answered the call.
“We’ve played in crowds like this,” Copper told reporters. “We played at Louisville, we played at Connecticut. We were prepared for this. So it was no different than any other time.”
Despite the challenge UTEP posed late in the game, the Conference USA foe never gave an indication of matching up well with the Knights, who played a nearly flawless first half.
Rutgers played suffocating defense to build a 30-16 halftime cushion, while Copper dominated the paint with 16 points and 10 rebounds in the half.
UTEP succumbed to the Knights’ zone press in the half court, committing 13 turnovers — including a travel and shot-clock violation — and converting just four field goals on 18-percent shooting in the period.
Still, the Miners’ late adjustments and tenacious home crowd gave Stringer precisely the postseason experience she wanted a youthful Rutgers team to use as a springboard going into the Big Ten.
“What is more important is that we probably got the best experience of them all. I know that it can’t be rougher than a Final Four because I’ve gone to three or four of them,” Stringer told reporters. “We’ve been on the road for [eight] days and we faced tough competition and it was a long journey.”