No. 25 Michigan State powers past Rutgers in final minutes for 70-67 win
It appeared to be a signature performance, employing all the staples of the Rutgers women’s basketball program and all that it represents under the tutelage of head coach C. Vivian Stringer.
All signs pointed to the Scarlet Knights (16-11, 7-8) securing their first victory over a ranked opponent all season, with a chance to improve their NCAA Tournament stock on "Blackout Night."
That was until No. 25 Michigan State (19-7, 10-4) tore down those signs and ripped the life from the crowd at Rutgers Athletic Center, leaving the Knights stunned by a 70-67 defeat.
“Best laid plans often go undone. And that’s exactly what happened,” Stringer said postgame. “I mean, for them to score 29 points in the fourth quarter, are you kidding? In the fourth quarter?”
As it turns out they weren’t kidding and yes, in the fourth quarter.
Rutgers entered the final frame with a 50-41 lead thanks to a fast start and stingy defense throughout the first three periods.
Then the Scarlet wall the Knights forged around the rim collapsed like a house of popsicle sticks.
Rutgers was outscored 29-17 in the final quarter after controlling the action for 30 minutes. As the fans hit the turnstyles with a vacant look in their eyes, Stringer reminded reporters why the game has four quarters.
“That’s what I’m talking about," she said. "We’ve been folding in the fourth quarter, not intentionally, but we obviously don’t have the ice in our veins to execute the way that we need to.”
It all started out well.
Michigan State didn’t score its first points until Aerial Powers sank two free throws at the 2:05 mark in the first quarter. Rutgers jumped out to a 9-2 run while tightening the clamps on the Spartans' offense, limiting them to 1-of-20 shooting to finish the first frame with a 17-4 lead.
Michigan State woke up in the second quarter, but the Knights maintained a seven-point lead at 33-26 heading into the locker room for halftime.
Rutgers engineered an 11-3 run to start the third and from there, the Knights lead yoyo-ed back and forth from 14 points to 12 and back again, closing the third period up by 9.
With 7:44 left to play a bucket from freshman KK Sanders equaled Rutgers' largest lead of the evening at 55-41 and three minutes and 10 seconds later, the Knights maintained an 11-point advantage, up 62-51.
The wheels began to wiggle loose as MSU’s top-scorer took over the game.
Powers finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds to lead all players in both categories for the night.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Senior center Rachel Hollivay was kryptonite for Sparty's star forward and the rest of the offense through the first 35 minutes.
But down the stretch, Powers recharged.
The 6-footer scored 5 points in 31 seconds to propel the Spartans to victory, leaving the ladies in Scarlet and Black languishing in defeat.
What’s scary is Rutgers’ defensive stopper did her job and then some.
Hollivay and company limited Powers to 5-of-17 from the field, but she capitalized at the free throw line, going 14-of-15 for the evening, including a pair of free throws to give MSU the lead, 67-65, with 27 seconds left on the game clock.
Junior guard Tyler Scaife scored a game-high 22 points for the Knights, but in the end, she tasted nothing but bitterness for her efforts.
Scaife believed Rutgers had its house in order, until the foundation began crumbling down.
“I felt like we had the game in control, we just had a couple — we didn’t communicate with some things on the defensive end, and that’s really what it was,” Scaife said. “But for the whole game, we felt like we had everything under control, until the end.”
Hollivay finished with 8 points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks, setting the new single season record for blocks in the Big Ten Conference (98).
But the 6-foot-4 center was missing from the floor in the final minute after both she and senior wing Kahleah Copper, the team’s leading rebounder, fouled out of the game.
“It also didn’t help the fact that Rachel is a force and she’s gonna rebound,” Stringer said. “She’s not in there so we had to put the freshmen in, but they weren’t getting it done. … And then you got Copper (fouling out too), who’s a much more experienced player.”
Stringer seemed less than surprised by the result given her team’s propensity not to perform for the entire 40 minutes at times in 2015-2016.
“It’s been our story the whole year. We’ve been freezing when it comes down to the fourth quarter," she said. "We just (freeze). And I’m not happy about this, but that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Hollivay expressed that the team was hurt, but insisted that the Knights are not done.
Three games remain on the regular season schedule for Rutgers, beginning Sunday, as the Knights welcome No. 6 Maryland to the RAC at 3 p.m.
“We just gotta come together and regroup as a team and just do what Coach (Stringer) asks us to do," Hollivay said. "We gotta lock down the defense next game. We know next game is a big game. At the end of the season, (there’s) bound (to be) some upsets, so, I just feel like, if we come back to practice focused, we’ll be confident in the next game.”