Dynamic duo leads Rutgers into second year in Big Ten
They say this year will be different.
Entering the 2015-16 season, the Rutgers women's basketball team is poised to push its play to new heights after faltering in the latter portion of last season.
The Scarlet Knights started fast in 2014, ripping off 20 wins in their first 26 games. But they sputtered down the stretch, losing four of their final seven, culminating in a 87-60 loss to top-seeded Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Rutgers finished 23-10 last year, averaging 68.7 points per game, the second highest average in the Hall of Fame career of head coach C. Vivian Stringer.
"I love this team," Stringer said from the podium at the team's Media Day Oct. 27. "This is a great team — a people team — and I'm sincere when I say that. And they know what to do ... We had one of the highest scoring teams last year."
The Knights' first year in the Big Ten Conference was a mixed bag.
Rutgers finished 12-6 in the league, but most of its wins came against the lesser programs. Crucial losses to teams in the top half of the conference — namely Northwestern and Maryland, both twice — taught the team what life is really like in the Big Ten.
A year later, leaders like senior wing Kahleah Copper and junior guard Tyler Scaife feel that the experience of the first year in the prestigious conference have served them well in preparing for year two.
"I feel like we didn't really get a chance to prove what we could do last year,” Scaife said. “We did decent, but this year, we know what we're going up against and I'm just ready to get into the conference (schedule) so that we can play those teams again."
Scaife starred in her sophomore season, finishing third on the team with 14.8 points per game while elevating her play against ranked opponents (16.5 points per game) and in the NCAA Tournament (18.5 points per game).
The Little Rock, Arkansas, native expects to be even better in her junior season after spending most the summer in the weight room and in the gym.
"We've been working in the off-season on our shots, different ways to score, ways to get people involved,” Scaife said. “I feel that this year, everybody will be able to see what we did in the offseason.”
Copper willed her way onto the national radar after registering 11, 20-plus point performances in Rutgers inaugural season in the Big Ten. In a season that earned her Second Team All-Big Ten honors, Copper shined, averaging 16.3 points per game to go with 5.1 rebounds per contest in her junior year.
The Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native feels that as effective as she and the Knights were at putting up points last year, they can be even more productive this season.
"I think we're going to continue to bring it," Copper said. "I think that we've gotten so much better over the summer and are still continuing to get better, so I think we will definitely bring some more scoring this year."
The departure of honorable mention All-American wing and 2015 WNBA draftee Betnijah Laney (17th overall) leaves a void on Rutgers roster. Laney posted 20 double-doubles last year for the Knights, averaging 15.8 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.
Copper is confident she can both increase her production on the boards and fill the leadership role left vacant after Laney's departure.
"It definitely has changed. I don't have Benijah this year," Copper said. "But I think I've been doing a pretty good job of leading by example. It's not hard at all. I just come into practice and try to continue to lead the team and make sure everybody is doing everything correctly. Then there are times when you can be vocal, and those are the keys to good leadership."
Between Copper and Scaife, it's conceivable that the Knights could have two players averaging close to 20 points per game in 2015-2016. Rutgers ascended as high as No. 16 in the national polls a year ago, but after another year of experience, they could threaten the nation's top-10.
With the expected uptick in offensive production, Scaife anticipates an astronomical rise up the national rankings for the Knights.
"I think that will definitely be scoring more points this year," Scaife said. "We've got some good pieces to the puzzle in the freshmen that we have. I feel like we can definitely be a top-10 team this year."
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