WNIT crown fuels Knights into Big Ten
Even with 929 career wins and three NCAA Final Fours to her name, C. Vivian Stringer decorated her Hall of Fame resume with something new this season: a WNIT championship.
An NCAA title still eludes the Rutgers head women’s basketball coach, but with her current contract set to expire June 30, Stringer made a solid case to lead the program for a few more years.
With a relatively soft schedule and small margin for error, the Scarlet Knights (28-9) controlled their destiny about as well as anyone could have expected.
In AAC play, they lost only one game outside of No. 1 UConn and No. 4 Louisville. Prior to that, Rutgers went 11-2 out of conference, topping a ranked foe in then-No. 16 Georgia back in December.
After losing four of six leading scorers from a year ago to graduation and transfer, the Knights’ youth came together to produce the program’s most efficient season offensively since 2008, when the team made the Elite Eight of the NCAAs.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, playing the 80th-best strength of schedule, according to realtimerpi.com, wasn’t enough for the NCAA Selection Committee to include them in the 64-team field.
A home loss to South Florida in the regular-season finale and the lack of a marquee late-season win were other costly factors in the Knights’ exclusion from the NCAAs.
But how Rutgers responded to missing the NCAAs for the second straight season after 10 consecutive selections, which Stringer last week called “a joke,” bodes well for the team’s future.
Stringer, who had been against a consolation tournament in years past, stressed the importance of a young, rebuilding team gaining postseason experience in order to help the program get back to the Final Four.
Rutgers more than made the most of it.
The Knights won six hard-fought games to capture the WNIT crown — three coming by 5 points or fewer. Another win came in double overtime against Seton Hall in the Round of 16 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. And the last three victories all came in hostile road environments.
It all culminated Saturday in a one-possession win in the WNIT Championship at UTEP, which hosted 12,221 fans — the largest crowd Rutgers saw all season.
“This team has been able to restore our honor and show what it means to be a Scarlet Knight. To be a Scarlet Knight you need to have great heart, great desire and great determination,” Stringer told reporters postgame. “I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity to end with a national championship.”
If Stringer leads the Knights into the Big Ten — she said in February the contract negotiations with Athletic Director Julie Hermann were in the “final stages” — a return to national prominence is likely.
Rutgers, which had no seniors on the roster this season, should only trend upward from here. The Knights will return all five starters on top of a new recruiting class next season.
Leading scorer Kahleah Copper only just began to tap into her potential this year with extended minutes and will be a more-experienced junior. AAC Freshman of the Year guard Tyler Scaife, although a breakout star this year, is still developing her defense and shot selection.
And wing Betnijah Laney, who expanded her offensive game and developed a solid perimeter shot last summer, will return as a senior captain.
Most importantly, the Knights should be experienced and poised from the get-go against marquee opponents in the Big Ten, something they couldn’t say a year ago.