Head coach's fiery mentality spills over to players
In her 43 years as a head coach at the Division I level of women’s basketball, C. Vivian Stringer hasn’t always had the most talented teams.
But this season offers a rare occurrence. After a year where the Rutgers women’s basketball team missed out on an invite to the NCAA Tournament, 10 letter-winners returned with the intention to take the team further.
Last year, the Scarlet Knights brought a national title back to Piscataway, but the title was a consolation prize — the WNIT.
Stringer hasn’t shied away from the desire to bring the program back to the upper-echelon spot of its hallowed past. The veteran coach has made the expectation of regaining national relevance her No. 1 priority, dating back to the moment last year’s celebration ended.
Early on in the season, the Knights have gotten off to a promising start. Six games into the 2014-2015 campaign, Rutgers boasts an unbeaten record and a No. 18 ranking.
As the years have passed, Stringer has refused to get comfortable. Instead, in her 20th year at the helm, she has decided to crank up the intensity — and it has paid off to this point.
It begins with a stifling defense that has held opponents to 51.7 points per game on 31-percent shooting, a brand of basketball derived from Stringer’s mentality and schemes.
“We’re constantly looking to be in the attack mode,” Stringer said. “… So we’ve got to be able to play our game and we’re not going to try to deviate from our game, but we need to know who we are. It was a great thing [after Sunday’s game against Davidson] to see us return to stingy defense, to push the tempo [and] to distribute the ball. [We] feel good about it.”
Rutgers’ 100-44 beatdown of Davidson served as an example of what the team can do, starting with the defense.
Regarded as one of the team’s top defenders, Syessence Davis has sparked and maximized the Knights’ energy. She has a team-high 18 steals on the season, eight of which came against Davidson where the senior guard seemed to be everywhere on the floor.
“[Davis] really is … a monster uptight because she’s going to get in anything, she makes you uncomfortable … and when we were putting the pressure … it allows everyone to read and react,” Stringer said. “That’s basically what’s been happening: pressure on the ball, taking a switch, anticipating it and looking to run.”
Davis attributed the pep in her step to Stringer’s constant constructive criticism, alluding to the recent practices leading up to Sunday.
“For the past week in practice, Coach Stringer was asking me and telling me that I wasn’t myself and to come back to my old self,” Davis said. “… I really didn’t understand what she was talking about until we were going over certain plays and I started to attack and see my posts a lot more. And she was saying, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’”
While addressing that Stringer can be overbearing at times, Davis acknowledged the good intentions extracted from her head coach’s rants.
“There’s a lot of times she talks about and criticizes what I do,” she said. “I kind of get down on myself, and I can’t really see what she’s talking about, but when she says, ‘That’s it. That’s it.’ … Sometimes, I just have to find it. … The past practice I found what she was talking about, and I stayed with that.”
Evidently, that mentality has trickled down to Tyler Scaife. Despite being the team’s leading scorer with 16.3 points per game, the sophomore guard has taken in Stringer’s critiques and has taken it upon herself to improve all aspects of her game.
“I haven’t really [been] feeling like I’ve been playing really well lately,” said Scaife. “So I did a little research into like Michael Jordan, Kobe … if they had bad games, and I just kind of used that as motivation — like yeah, it happens, [and] I just need to move forward and just pick my head up and keep playing.”
As critical as Stringer can be toward her players, she credits her team for taking that extra step to strive for the next level.
For the Knights to reach their expectations at the end of the year, that mentality will have to continue from the early days of December into the judgment days of the final stretch in March.
“I think that these seniors … don’t want to regret any day that they’re practicing, so they’re practicing hard, they’re practicing with a purpose and they have an attitude that they believe,” Stringer said. “… When you have that in your heart, you have that drive and soul inside and nothing and no one can stop you when you believe that. And it’s not something that I have to say. They’re just great competitors and coaches. You can have the greatest skill in the world, [but] coaches can’t give that competition, that competitive spirit.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.