Scaife’s smooth transition helps Rutgers return to prominence
Despite being the nation’s top point guard recruit a year ago, freshman Tyler Scaife surprised even college basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli this season.
“I look at Tyler and I go, ‘Wow, she is better than I thought. She’s only 19, and she’s done all this?’” Antonelli said last week via phone. “Yet she needs to add the 3 [point shot] and put some strength on her frame? I can’t wait to see what she comes back with as a sophomore.”
The Daily Targum’s Rookie of the Year more than lived up to the preseason hype, lifting the Rutgers women’s basketball team to its first-ever WNIT Championship on April 5 thanks to a game-winning shot with 2.1 seconds left.
On that day, Scaife passed former Scarlet Knight and current WNBA star Cappie Pondexter for the most points by a freshman in school history with 536. It was one of many accolades the 5-foot-9 guard achieved in an impressive transition to the college game.
Antonelli, a television commentator for ESPN and other major networks for 27 years, views Scaife’s arrival to Piscataway as a monumental stepping stone for a program back on the rise.
“I think she singlehandedly, along with the improvement of [sophomore] Kahleah Copper, allowed Rutgers to be one of the best offensive teams that [head coach] Vivian [Stringer] has ever had,” Antonelli said. “Her mantra all year was ‘get buckets.’ I think ‘buckets’ ought to be her nickname because she can certainly do that. ... Her midrange is so good and she has such a great change of pace about her. She can change direction, change pace. She’s got that jerky offensive movement to her that is really tough to guard.”
The AAC Freshman of the Year finished eighth in the league in scoring (14.5 points per game) and third in free-throw percentage (.778). Scaife also made the WNIT All-Tournament Team, Second Team All-AAC and Third Team All-Met.
The Little Rock, Arkansas native insisted throughout the season she remained humble and confident, continuously embracing new challenges.
“Just being open-minded, just listening — not trying to feel like I know everything,” Scaife said of her consistency as a rookie. “I had to do a lot of extra time in the gym because there were things that I didn’t know that everyone else knew because they’re older.”
It showed the most in pressure-packed atmospheres.
Two of her best games came against No. 1 Connecticut and then-No. 5 Louisville, dropping team highs of 22 and 25 points on Jan. 19 and 28, respectively.
And in perhaps the Knights’ most impressive win of the year, Scaife scored a career-high 29 points at home against Seton Hall in the WNIT Round of 16.
Still, it all might not have been possible had it not been for a distinct change in Stringer’s coaching philosophy.
The Hall of Famer, long known to lead defensive-oriented teams and shy away from taking risks on offense, opted for an up-tempo transition style of play this season. After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years last season, Stringer wanted to start anew.
It made for a perfect marriage with Scaife’s skill set.
“When I asked Vivian about the resurgence of this offense and playing up-tempo, I said, ‘What made you change your mind?’” Antonelli said. “She said, ‘I want to win.’ ... The defensive end of the floor — that hasn’t changed. What’s she done offensively, she’s letting them play the floor freely, a little more up-tempo, and that plays perfectly into Tyler’s game.”
Stringer entrusted Scaife as a primary ball-handler in Rutgers’ most efficient offense since the program made the NCAA Elite Eight in 2008. Scaife rewarded her by leading the Knights in scoring 14 times.
With exceptional quickness in the open floor, the guard regularly beat defenders off the dribble throughout the season.
Scaife also became so comfortable with a midrange jumper she says she honed over the summer by regularly staying in the gym until 1 or 2 a.m. that she typically opted to pull up for open shots just inside the 3-point line instead of going for layups.
But the rookie knows her game can still get better.
“I’m definitely going to do a lot of extra lifting so I can get stronger, work on my finishing and get the 3-ball down,” Scaife said. “The Big Ten’s a whole different animal, so we’ve got to go in there prepared.”
Scaife said she works out usually six days a week, four hours a day and has recently been putting in extra time with strength and conditioning coach Mike Johansen.
Antonelli thinks extensive film studies this offseason will also be key to Scaife potentially becoming an All-American player. Despite her vast talent, the rookie has shown deficiencies in shot selection and decision-making, finishing second on the team this season in turnovers. Her defense also continues to be a work in progress.
“Just watching tape, watching tendencies of yourself in certain sets that you run offensively, where there might be ways that you can exploit the defense,” Antonelli said. “I think learning through repetition of watching that stuff over and over allows you to become more instinctive. You don’t want to be always predictable or reactionary to the defense. What you want to be is very instinctive instead of being analytical.”
With a promising core of Scaife and Copper, along with junior forward Betnijah Laney, Antonelli said she would be “shocked” if Rutgers doesn’t make a serious run in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
The Knights are just happy to have Scaife on board for the program’s resurgence.
“There’s no cap on what she can do, what she’ll be able to do here at Rutgers,” Laney said. “It’s just up to her — what she works for.”