Rutgers looks to take next step in opener
The last time the Rutgers women’s basketball team stepped foot on the hardwood, it was to storm the court in El Paso, Texas, after holding off UTEP in the final seconds on Tyler Scaife’s graciously smooth coast-to-coast lay-up with 2.1 remaining.
As the Scarlet Knights return to the Louis Brown Athletic Center on Friday night at 7 p.m., they do so with the intent to take the next step on the right foot.
Entering its season-opening contest at home against St. Joseph’s, Rutgers and its No. 24 ranking in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 are expected to bolster the team’s credibility and assert a sense of dominance.
But the Hawks had something the Knights hungered for last year: an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. St. Joseph’s pieced together a 23-10 record a year ago, reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament after downing Georgia — a team Rutgers squeezed out a win against early last season.
With the clean slate of a brand new season, head coach C. Vivian Stringer expects the culmination of experienced players as well as the pair of junior college transfers in Cynthia Hernandez and Natalie Parsons on her team to take off beginning on Friday night.
“They’re confident,” Stringer said of her team. “We will continue to improve on the things we needed to do, skill that we ask, the consistency of the three-point play to make the three-point shot better. So we’re looking for that … so we can open this game up a little bit more.”
Returning their starting five and 10 total letterwinners from last year, the Knights establish an extension of the hot stretch of a six-game winning they rode out on at the end of the season.
In that mix, the team’s leading scorer in junior wing Kahleah Copper comes back looking to build on a breakout sophomore year, where she averaged a career-high 16.1 points per game after a freshman year where she played in spurts.
Hoping to emulate the leap taken by Copper last year, Scaife looks to get the ball rolling on her sophomore year after an offseason where she said she worked on her all-around game to become complete in terms of ball-handling and decision-making.
In a year when she won AAC Freshman of the Year, Scaife paced the Knights for second on the team in scoring with 14.5 points per game. Stringer said Scaife and junior guard Syessence Davis would split the ball-handling duties as starters beginning on Friday night.
When looking around at her teammates and the work they have put in throughout the offseason and up to this point, Scaife feels the Knights are ready to tip-off the 2014-2015 season.
“I feel like everyone’s ready to play. It was a good day today in practice,” Scaife said. “… It’s the first game. It’s exciting because it’s our crowd and everything, so I’m looking forward to the game.”
Rounding out the starters for the Knights are senior wing Betnijah Laney and junior center Rachel Hollivay.
The two dominated the paint last year for Rutgers, with Laney being a double-double machine averaging 11.8 points and 8.5 rebounds, while Hollivay locked down the interior on defense en route to 127 blocks on the season to shatter the program’s single season record.
Like the Knights, the Hawks return a slew of players detrimental to their NCAA Tournament appearance last year.
St. Joseph’s brings back eight letterwinners from last year’s squad, with forward Sarah Fairbanks leading the way.
Fairbanks led the Hawks in scoring last year with 12.7 points per game, while Natasha Cloud enters her senior year at guard as their main distributor and rebounder after posting averages of 11.5 points, 6.6 boards and 7.6 assists.
In order to stop the tandem, Scaife placed emphasis on the need to seize control of the game on the defensive side of the ball and make St. Joseph’s play into Rutgers’ game plan.
“I think [St. Joseph’s is a] good team,” Scaife said. “… They have some good players, so it’ll be a good chance to see where we are starting out the season.”
Back on Oct. 22 during Media day, Stringer stood at the podium and boldly foreshadowed that her team would “give you a show that you will not believe.”
After a year during which the Knights feel they were snubbed of an NCAA Tournament bid, that show begins now.
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.