Rutgers senior guard shoots across country for opportunity
She positions herself behind the 3-point line awaiting an opportunity and then it comes — often on a swing pass where her teammates rotate the ball quickly around the perimeter.
Once the ball is in her hands, she takes flight, rising from the floor to align her eyes with the circular target.
At the top of her vertical, she releases, flicking her wrist toward the rim and following through until her fingertips run nearly parallel to her forearm.
And then she watches her shot drop through the net.
These mechanics did not come naturally for Cynthia Hernandez.
The senior guard for the Rutgers women’s basketball team spent hours honing her craft — the motion, stroke and release.
In her two years on the Scarlet Knights' roster, Hernandez has converted 40 percent of the 3-point shots she attempted, but that’s a far cry from where it all began for the Californian.
Hernandez grew up playing soccer and softball as a young girl in her hometown of Ventura, but turned the other sports aside in favor of basketball in middle school.
"I didn't start playing actual basketball (until) seventh grade,” Hernandez said. “I played soccer and softball too, but I decided that I did not want to play soccer because my brother was good and I'm not gonna be compared. Softball was just not my thing, so I branched out and started playing basketball."
The transition did not come easily.
At 5-foot-7, Hernandez was never going to be tall enough to box out the big bodies in the low block.
But in basketball, if you can shoot, you can play.
So Hernandez started to practice everyday after school.
Her father gave her a number and she would keep shooting until she hit that mark.
When Hernandez was in high school, she said the magic number was 200. Until she successfully sank 200 shots, she could not leave the court.
"It started when I was a kid,” she said. “My dad made me go shoot every day for hours until I would make a certain amount and then when I did actually reach (that number), I could go home and eat and play with my brothers and stuff. But I would always have to do that every day after school. It helped me develop my shot."
Now, more than 2,800 miles from her home in the Golden State, Hernandez is trying to carve a niche on the Knights' roster in Hub City.
The move presented several off the court challenges — going from a small junior college, Ventura, to a large research institution was only one of them.
Any transfer student is forced to make new friends, but Hernandez had to adjust to the culture and the climate on the east coast as well, while her family remained on the opposite end.
She acknowledges the difficulty of the distance, but the senior guard points to her cross-country move as pivotal in her maturation process as a person.
"I think the move across the country kind of gave me my independence," she said. "And I think that when I go home, that's why they respect me more because no one moves across the country. No one ever leaves California. I mean, who would?"
Hernandez leads the Knights in 3-point shooting in the 2015-16 season, averaging 34.8 percent from downtown after shooting a team-high 42.2 percent in her first season on the Banks.
Perimeter shooting is a facet of the game that head coach C. Vivian Stringer is pushing to improve.
With strong guard play from junior Tyler Scaife and scoring on the wing from senior Kahleah Copper, efficiency from beyond the arc could be the missing piece to the puzzle for the Knights.
“This year has been a year of strange expectations ... but we’re shooting the three,” Stringer said. “We were extremely low in the nation before and we were in the top 10 in threes. Now, here we go, we shot 2-for-14 (against Arkansas), but we gotta continue to work on that and we gotta continue to shoot.”
Not so coincidentally, Hernandez hammered both the trifectas home.
The senior has converted 35 attempts from 3-point range in 36 career games at the Division I level. That stands far and away the top number on the team, with Scaife as next closest with 18 treys.
The lack of consistent 3-point shooting creates an opening for Hernandez, who is averaging 7.7 minutes played in the current campaign.
Aware of the obstacles and adversity, Hernandez is thankful for the opportunity to take her shot.
Amid the separation from family and adjustment to life on a different coast, she is grateful for the chance to play.
Even if it meant parting with the California sunshine.
"Last year was extremely cold, but I think it's been a really good decision on my part. I'm really happy I came across the country to play," Hernandez said. "Sometimes it does suck because I miss my family and the people that could come and see me, but it's pretty awesome that they can see me on TV."
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