Junior leads Rutgers to win over Michigan on Senior Day to close out season
Though the Rutgers women’s basketball team did not finish with as many wins as it was hoping for during the regular season, it finished in strong fashion with a dominating performance against Michigan.
The Scarlet Knights (16-13, 7-10) played very well in front of their home fans at the Rutgers Athletic Center on Senior Day, defeating the Wolverines, 72-50.
The senior class was on display in the victory, just as they have been when Rutgers has needed them most during this season.
Four seniors earned the start for the Knights, and all contributed in big ways.
They sparked Rutgers in its victory, culminating its regular season in winning fashion.
“This group has been the backbone of this team for quite some time,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “We appreciate the fact that we have another 40 minutes, and if we play like we did today and are all out, there’s no stopping us in terms of us losing because this group is very capable.”
Ariel Butts set the tone immediately for the Knights with an offensive rebound and a put-back layup on the team’s first possession to give Rutgers a 2-0 lead.
She grabbed five rebounds in the first quarter alone, and finished with seven boards for the game.
The Knights rode that early momentum to a 12-9 lead at the end of the first quarter, though both teams struggled shooting the ball in the opening period.
Rutgers was 6-for-18 from the field through the first 10 minutes, while the Wolverines were just 4-for-14 during the same time.
Senior wing Kahleah Copper then followed Butts’ blueprint by getting things going to start the second quarter for the Knights, scoring a basket after drawing a foul to increase her team’s lead to 14-9.
She then started to get into a groove and helped Rutgers increase its lead just before halftime.
She made four of her six shots in the first half, registering 9 points and six rebounds, helping the Knights take a 34-23 lead into halftime.
Then there was guard Briyona Canty, who scored the team’s first basket to begin the third quarter.
Canty put together another strong all-around performance like she has done throughout the year, finishing with 9 points, six assists and two rebounds.
With Michigan looking to get back in the game midway through the third quarter, Copper hit Butts for an uncontested layup to make the score 38-29 in favor of Rutgers.
Center Rachel Hollivay, the school’s all-time leading blocks leader, scored her first 5 points during the third quarter, including hitting an and-one.
She finished with 7 points, along with six rebounds and three blocks.
Copper then put the finishing touches on the lopsided victory in the fourth quarter by hitting an and-one of her own to extend the Knights’ lead to 24 points, at 66-42.
The Philadelphia native finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in her final home game as a Scarlet Knight.
Canty, Copper and Hollivay were major parts of Rutgers' victory, and earned high praise from their head coach after the game for their long careers at Rutgers.
“Bri started around her sophomore year, Kah has been starting since freshman year and the same thing with Rachel,” Stringer said. “That’s the reason why I want for them to have the ultimate success at the highest levels … They have taken starting roles since freshman year.”
On the day Rutgers honored its seniors, it was junior guard Tyler Scaife who was key in getting the Knights off to a fast start.
She had 17 points in the first half, including five-straight free throws in the final minute of the half to extend her team’s lead to 1 point heading into the break.
Her early rhythm was crucial for Rutgers to get going, and her success didn't come as a surprise to her head coach.
“Tyler did what she normally does,” Stringer said. “If the shot is there, she’s a very capable scorer … She knows that’s her job, as well as Kah’s is to score.”
Scaife seems to raise her game when the stakes are high.
She entered the game averaging 18.4 points per game against Big Ten opponents, and raised that average by finishing with a game-high 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting from the field.
Her free throw shooting seemed to rub off on her teammates, as Rutgers finished 17-for-21 from the charity stripe in the game.
Getting those easy points against a Michigan team that entered the game winning 5 of its previous 6 contests was critical for Rutgers in grabbing and extending its lead throughout the game.
“It was very important to make those (free throws),” Canty said. “We hadn’t been doing a good job with that, but today we made a conscious effort to focus on free throws, and it happened.”
Following a tough overtime loss on the road against Purdue on Wednesday, the Knights were able to bounce back in quick fashion to close out the regular season on a high note.
The regular season was littered with some tough and close losses for Rutgers.
Nearly two weeks ago, it suffered a heartbreaking defeat at home at the hands of Michigan State, 70-67.
A common theme in these losses and in the season as a whole has been the inability to hold leads for the majority of the game.
But on Sunday against Michigan, Rutgers was not going to allow anything like that to happen again.
It led for over 35 minutes of the game, not letting the Wolverines have much hopes of forcing a comeback.
It was a point of emphasis for the Knights to stay intense throughout the game, and they did just that by staying in control even when the score became out of reach.
“We’re just tired of coming up short,” Hollivay said. “We wanted to come into this game and into every game from now on as hard as ever.”