Rutgers faces tallest challenge of early season in North Carolina
From the moment the No. 18 Rutgers women’s basketball team won the opening tip in its game this past Sunday, it cruised to a 100-44 decimation of Davidson.
But with a top-10 team in No. 6 North Carolina coming to Piscataway on Thursday night, the ride could get a bit bumpy.
With the exception of a 64-57 triumph at LSU in the third game of the year, the Scarlet Knights (6-0) have yet to be challenged.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels (7-0) have gone through much of the same. Outside of a last-minute squeeze of a 79-77 win on their home court against then-No. 21 Oklahoma State, five of their seven wins have been by double-digits.
One of those uncontested wins includes a 70-54 drubbing of then-No. 5 Stanford, a credible program with its Final Four appearance in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
For head coach C. Vivian Stringer, the key to her team’s success thrives on what has aided Rutgers to its dominance in the early season: offense starting with defense.
With the attack the Tar Heels could potentially bring, Stringer emphasized the need to stay aggressive on defense to slow down a rampant shooting team.
“Coming up with North Carolina — North Carolina will score 100 points in a minute. We all know that,” Stringer said. “They’re going to push the floor, [and] they’re going to shoot the shot at the three-point range. You’ve got to come out and play it at the three-point range. … So we’ve got to be able to play our game.”
Through the first six games, the Knights have stifled opposing offenses to 51.7 points per game on 31-percent shooting. The numbers correlate directly from a mentality that begins with Stringer, who has instilled a suffocating defense that swarms to the ball from end to end on the court.
When North Carolina takes the court, Rutgers expects that element to immediately be put to the test.
Entering Thursday’s contest, the Tar Heels have dropped an average of 78.1 points per game led by Ashlia Gray. The sophomore guard has been the main catalyst on both sides of the ball through North Carolina’s first six games, serving as the team’s leading scorer with averages of 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.
Forwards Xylina McDaniel and Stephanie Mavunga add a dominant one-two punch in the post for UNC. Towering at respective heights of 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3, McDaniel and Mavunga combine to average 22.7 points per contest and rip down an average of 15.6 boards.
But with what the Knights possess in their roster in terms of height, strength and speed, they matchup favorably.
For one, junior center Rachel Hollivay isn’t fazed by what the Tar Heels have the potential to do. In fact, the team’s leading shot-blocker with 15 swats in the first six games welcomes the challenge of a top-10 opponent.
“I’m just going out there, playing hard and making sure [my teammates and I] are playing together,” Hollivay said.
Referring to the increase in her post play this year and her most recent performance where she rocked the paint with 11 points and two blocks against Davidson, Hollivay pointed to the breakdown and focus on polishing simple fundamentals.
“… Last year, I was rushing everything,” she said. “This year, I’m a little more calm and just bringing it to the next game.”
Adding onto the array of weapons for the Knights is senior wing Betnijah Laney.
Fresh off her sixth-consecutive double-double of the season that earned her a Big Ten Honor Roll for the second week in a row, Laney enters Thursday’s matchup averaging 15.3 points and 13.8 rebounds per contest.
Needing just 12 more points to become the 34th player in Rutgers history to crack the 1,000-point club, Laney embraces the challenge standing in her way with an elite North Carolina team.
“It’s really cool. We’re excited, not trying to be too anxious,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity. … I’m pretty confident. I think it just shows the different things I’ve been working on, and I just want to go out do the same thing each game.”
For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.