December 17, 2018 | ° F

Excitement builds as inaugural Big Ten season awaits

The Rutgers women’s basketball team swarmed the court in El Paso, Texas, in April in celebration of a WNIT Championship that could be viewed as a stepping stone. 

There’s no undermining the impressive run the Scarlet Knights embarked on down the final stretch of their 2013-2014 season. 

Despite a snub from the NCAA Tournament, C. Vivian Stringer did what a Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame head coach naturally does and extracted the best out of her team when she needed it most.

But the party didn’t last long. Not long after returning to New Jersey, Stringer’s mind had already shifted to the 2014-2015 season and how she could build on the momentum seized during a six-game winning streak that led to a consolation title.

With 10 of the 14 players returning on the roster and considering how the team rode out its season on a high wave of winning, Stringer enters her 20th season at Rutgers with lofty expectations of getting the program back into the national spotlight.

With the entrance to the Big Ten in the mix, Stringer believes her team is right where it belongs.

“Without question, we’re coming off a real high by winning the WNIT. We return quite a few veterans, and this is, without question, an experienced team, so we’re excited about it,” Stringer said. “When you look at the Big Ten, this is perfectly suited for Rutgers, both academically and athletically. And top to bottom, we can just expect really challenging games, and that should be great.”

The Knights opened up last year 21-4 but stumbled toward the finish line of the regular season. They dropped three of their last four games prior to the postseason in AAC Tournament play, where they were blown out by eventual undefeated national champion Connecticut.

It’s debatable whether 64 other teams were better than Rutgers and deserved an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament more, but the team made the most of the cards it was dealt and finished the season with a 28-9 overall record and a WNIT Championship in the trophy case.

But with all that in the rearview mirror now, Stringer has rapidly attempted to prepare her players for the excitement and great expectations that await in the inaugural Big Ten season.

Adding a pair of three-point sharpshooters in junior college transfer guards Cynthia Hernandez and Natalie Parsons, Stringer hopes the spacing will not only bolster the weakest aspect of the team around the perimeter, but also open up opportunities in the paint.

With 6-foot-4 junior center Rachel Hollivay coming off a promising season where she averaged 7.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, those statistics could be expected to improve.

Meanwhile, Betnijah Laney enters her final year following a season where she was a double-double machine. Last year, the senior wing averaged 11.8 points and 8.5 rebounds and even played the role of the distributor with 2.9 assists per game.

Entering the season with a No. 24 ranking in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, Rutgers finds itself at a good starting point. 

With a stronger out-of-conference slate that includes No. 4 Tennessee, No. 13 North Carolina and four Big Ten teams also boasting top-25 rankings, the Knights have their work cut out for them. 

But the results can be rewarding. 

One player who believes in that is sophomore guard Tyler Scaife.

Coming off a freshman campaign where she garnered AAC Freshman of the Year honors and averaged 14.1 points per game as the team’s second leading scorer, the hero of the WNIT remains focused on how she can continue to blossom as a both a scorer and a distributor.

“We did really [well] last year,” Scaife said. “Over the summer, I just worked on things to improve, but, I mean, I’m looking forward to the season.”

Coming into last year as the top point guard recruit in the country, Scaife was expected by Stringer to be an immediate contributor. Now, Stringer hopes to see her game rise to the next level. 

“She did have a fine season, and we were expecting fine things,” Stringer said. “… We continue to expect great things. Now, because of the success that she’s had, I think she knows where she can go, and she just needs to pick up where she left off.”

Scaife may hope to emulate similar improvements made by Kahleah Copper a year ago. 

After a freshman season where she contributed sparingly with 5.1 points per game, Copper made the jump in her second year as the Knights’ leading scorer with 16.1 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per contest.

Copper reiterated her desire to establish consistency in her all-around game with the midrange and outside shooting, but when it comes down to it, the junior wing hopes to ride the optimism from last year into the hype surrounding the beginning of the inaugural Big Ten season.

“It’s definitely hit us [that the season is here]. We’re excited,” Copper said. “I mean, I’m really excited because I’ve been in three different conferences since I started, and just to be a part of a new conference is just … new competition. [The] teams are a lot better, and we’re just excited.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Garrett Stepien

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