Rutgers aims to keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive in West Lafayette
Despite back-to-back losses, there remains a glimmer of hope for the Rutgers women’s basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament, as faint as it may be.
With two games to go on the regular season schedule, the Scarlet Knights (16-12, 7-9) will likely need to win out and win at least a game in the Big Ten Tournament, which will tip-off next week, to ensure a date to The Big Dance.
Senior wing Kahleah Copper believes her team is still in the hunt for the tournament.
Rutgers’ vocal leader said if her team can pay attention to detail, the Knights can turn it around.
“I just think we need to stay focused,” Copper said. “We still need to just continue to come to practice and just work on the things that we’re struggling with, continue to really focus on these little drills that we have in practice that help us to rebound and different things like that. I just think that we need to continue to stay focused on just continuing to come out and play hard.”
The final pair of games begins with Purdue (17-10, 8-8) in West Lafayette, Indiana. The matchup with the Boilermakers Thursday night will close out the slate of regular season games on the road, a place where the Knights have not fared well.
Rutgers' first challenge will be the venue.
The Knights are 3-8 this season in true road games — they are 3-0 at neutral sites — sharply contrasting their performance in Piscataway, where they hold a record of 10-4.
Fortunately for the visitors, Purdue hasn’t exactly been putting its best foot forward as of late.
The Boilermakers are coming off an 18-point win at Nebraska, but they needed it to snap a five-game losing streak.
Purdue has lost eight of its last 11 games entering the matchup, after opening the year 14-2, but it also boasts a 10-4 record on their home floor.
So what are Rutgers' chances?
There are certain criteria the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee holds to when awarding teams at-large bids to the field of 64.
Some of the most important facets are a team’s Ranking Percentage Index (RPI), wins against ranked opponents and wins on the road.
Purdue represents the Knights' last opportunity for a road win and the Boilermakers standing at No. 57 in RPI could help a bit too.
Rutgers, who are currently No. 52 in RPI, do not have a win over a top-25 team and its three road wins came at St. Joseph’s, Illinois and Penn State, none of which would impress the committee.
But a win over a 17-win team on the road might tip the scale.
In order to deliver, the Knights will need to rebound, play defense and stay out of foul trouble.
Rutgers' inability to remain on the floor has killed them in the fourth quarter this season, with the most recent shining example coming their last time on the court against Maryland.
For head coach C. Vivian Stringer, this has been a pattern.
“If you noticed (senior guard) Briyona (Canty) had picked up a foul, two fouls in less than four minutes. So that didn't help,” Stringer said after the 73-59 loss to UM. “And I think it was (senior center) Rachel (Hollivay), was the other person we had on the bench ... For those of you who have been here before, it's the same old story.”
Simply put, the Knights need Hollivay, Copper, Canty and junior guard Tyler Scaife on the court when the game hits crunch time.
Without Hollivay or Copper, Rutgers is rendered a shell of itself on the glass and that has been evident in the two consecutive losses.
“Forty-one rebounds to what? 26?” Stringer said after the loss to Maryland Sunday. “That tells you, and that's exactly what happened, if you remember Michigan State. If anybody can get 16 rebounds, more than you have an opportunity to have at least 32 more points.”
Points are the easiest thing to circle as a reason for team’s struggle. For the Knights, it’s a primary factor to the outcome on both ends of the floor.
Rutgers maintains the conference’s top spot in scoring defense, allowing 58.9 points per game, but it also remains at the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring offense.
If Scaife, the leading scorer (17.2 points per game) and Copper (second at 17.0) are unable to post their averages, the team struggles.
Just ask Terps head coach Brenda Frese.
“Obviously Scaife and Copper are two great players,” Frese said after her team’s road win Sunday. “But I think we did a good job of knowing where they were at.”
Copper led all scorers with 23 points Sunday, but Scaife only managed 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting in the 14-point loss.
If those two can put their numbers in conjunction with improved rebounding and some offensive production from Hollivay and Canty, the Knights should be in position for that elusive road win.
But Stringer believes that if Rutgers can combine those aspects with great defense, they will become unstoppable.
“If we’re playing great defense together, I don't think there's anybody — I have the belief that there’s no one in the country that can stop us,” Stringer said.