Rutgers aims to snap losing streak against team who started skid
The clock is ticking and time is beginning to run out.
Mired in a four-game losing streak, the Rutgers women's basketball team will seek to halt its current skid right back where it started against Nebraska on Saturday afternoon at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
It was the Cornhuskers (15-5, 6-3) whose 65-54 comeback win in Lincoln sent the Scarlet Knights (12-9, 3-6) spinning downward, signaled by three more consecutive losses to No. 18 Michigan State, No. 7 Ohio State and Indiana respectively.
Guard Jessica Shepard topped all scorers for Nebraska Jan. 16, aided by the clutch shooting of her backcourt companion Natalie Romeo, who dropped 19 points, including five 3-pointers, finishing with a flurry in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't until that final period that the Huskers held their first lead, when Romeo rattled home back-to-back 3s to put Nebraska up 49-46.
The Knights were never able to recover.
The visitors were outscored 24-11 in the fourth quarter, after entering the period up two at 43-41.
Rutgers will have a shot at redemption Saturday in surroundings their play suggests is more comfortable.
The Knights return home to the RAC, where they boast an 8-2 record after having an eight-game home winning streak snapped by the Buckeyes Sunday, 58-67.
In order to return the favor, Rutgers will have to revitalize an offense that yielded a team-high 12 points from senior wing Kahleah Copper, and stands last in the Big Ten overall scoring with 60.1 points per game.
Copper and junior guard Tyler Scaife have traded top-scoring duties throughout the season, with the younger Scaife currently atop the leaderboard with 17.0 points per game. Copper is not far behind with 16.6 points per and the senior leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per contest.
When Scaife is at her best, she is aggressive.
Whether she’s driving the lane or taking advantage of good looks, the more action she can display, the better she performs, especially when she can get to the free throw line.
Back on Dec. 6 versus Arkansas at the RAC, the Little Rock native scored 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field, knocking down all four of her attempts from the foul line to lead the Knights to a 20-point win.
For the season, Scaife is converting 87 percent from the charity stripe.
“I was attacking the rim early on,” Scaife said in the media room at the RAC after the win. “I got to the free throw line and I feel like that helped me to get into a good rhythm for the first quarter and then after that the ball just kept dropping.”
But the bugaboo for the team on the Banks all season has been the lack of a third scoring option, for Copper and Scaife cannot do it alone.
Senior center Rachel Hollivay will need to prove more consistent on the heels of 13 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in her last time on the floor against the Hoosiers, just three days after she was held to two points and two boards by the Buckeyes.
While Hollivay is working hard to establish position down low, Scaife and the rest of the Knights backcourt will have theirs hands full attempting to contain Shepard and Romeo.
And that's before mentioning forward Rachel Theriot, who scored 17 points in the last meeting between the schools.
Fortunately, defense is rarely the issue for Rutgers.
The Knights sit second in scoring defense in the conference despite the recent skid, limiting opponents to 56.6 points per game.
Hollivay has a lot to do with that distinction. The Columbus, Mississippi, native ranks No. 1 in the league with 65 blocks, just nine swats shy of overtaking legend Sue Wicks for the school record of 293 blocked shots.
At this point in her career, defense is expected from Hollivay, but now, more than ever, her offense is needed.
“(Hollivay) is capable of doing many great things,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “You know that girl can hit high-post shots, as many as she can. We can open her up and she can do a whole heck of a lot of things.”
With only nine games left on the schedule, now is the time for Rutgers to make its move toward a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. The slate includes rematches with Illinois, Michigan State before hosting the reigning Big Ten Champ, No. 5 Maryland Feb. 21 and closing the year at home against Michigan one week later.
Eight wins will allow the Knights to hit the often heralded 20-win mark that is used as a measuring stick for the tournament’s selection committee. Although the conference tournament presents a chance for more wins, Rutgers cannot rely on that for a soft landing.
Stringer does believe her team has the guts necessary to make such a run.
Asked how she assessed the team after the New Year’s Eve win over Minnesota, Stringer signaled confidence coming from off of the court.
“I know about their character. I know we have had many meetings and we talked about who we are," she said. "I’ve missed a couple practices because my mom has been very sick and I’m really proud of the team work. They’ve worked extremely hard with my not being there ... they’re buying into it and hopefully they continue to buy into it.”