August 18, 2019 | 81° F

Rutgers seeks to build momentum heading toward postseason in matchup with Illinois

Photo by Edwin Gano |

Junior wing Kahleah Copper poured in 24 points on Sunday in the Knights rout of Purdue at the RAC. Rutgers hopes to avoid a slip-up against upset-minded Illinois when the two schools matchup tonight.

Coming off of its bounce back victory against Purdue last Saturday, the Rutgers women’s basketball team looks to build a new win streak.

That mission begins tonight when the team hosts Illinois.

The Scarlet Knights (19-6, 10-4) have gone 8-2 in their last 10 games, spanning a six-game winning streak.

With only four games remaining in the regular season, every game is critical now for tournament play and postseason seeding.

“We have four games as we look at it, with two at home, so pretty soon everything that we do will be do or die,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “We’re trying to establish certain things such as rotations, so all the players know what the gameplan is going forward.”

That do or die attitude was evident in play against the Boilermakers, as the Knights stretched out their lead to make their victory as convincing as possible.

Every win improves their tournament resumé, which has been the main goal for the Knights since being excluded from the NCAA Tournament last season.

Their next chance to do so comes against the Fighting Illini (13-13, 4-10), a team that has struggled in conference play but should not be taken lightly.

Illinois has knocked off three of the top six teams in the Big Ten, including No. 13 Iowa, Minnesota and, most recently, Ohio State.

Defense has been the biggest factor in the upsets, limiting all three teams to less than 70 points.

The Fighting Illini rank fifth in the Big Ten in average scoring defense at 63.6 points per game and third in three-point field goal defense with opponents shooting only 29.2 percent from long range.

Rutgers will need to be focused from the moment the game begins in order to shut down any upset bid Illinois presents.

While the Knights downed Purdue by 29 points, it took them over 25 minutes to establish control of the game before imposing their will on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

One key for Rutgers against Illinois will be to establish its patented “55” full-court press defense, which has often led to easy offense in transition when effective.

The Knights have held three of their last five opponents to 50 points or fewer and have scored over 70 points in three of those five games as well.

Those figures have a distinct correlation, and an easy offense will lead scorers such Kahleah Copper to get prime looks at the basket and establish their presence early against Illinois.

“I just got in a rhythm, I felt good and the shots fell,” Copper said. “It feels good, my teammates are really encouraging and everyone is sharing the ball and things are going smoothly [on offense].”

Copper has reached double-figures in scoring in four of the Knights’ last five games and plans on keeping that hot touch going tonight.

Another area Rutgers will need to take advantage in will be rebounding.

Illinois is 12th in the conference in defensive rebounds per game at 40.9 per game, and are getting out rebounded by over four rebounds per game by their opponents. That mark is good for 13th in the Big Ten.

After scoring 50 points in the paint last contest, expect the Knights to go down low in the post early and often tonight.

While the Knights should be prepared for a strong effort by Illinois tonight, this game is just one more stepping stone for their main goals of the season.

“This is all in preparation for the Big Ten Conference [tournament] and the NCAAs, so everything we have been doing while being stingy on the defensive side of things does not surprise me,” Stringer said. 

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

Conor Nordland

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