Rutgers dominates Michigan in 72-50 win to close out regular season
Better late than never.
It took 30 games, but the Rutgers women's basketball team saved its best performance of the season for the regular season finale against Michigan on Senior Day.
Senior wing Kahleah Copper scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for her 10th double-double of the year and the Scarlet Knights (17-13, 8-10) dominated the Wolverines (17-12, 9-9) to walk away from the Rutgers Athletic Center with a 72-50 win on Sunday.
The Knights put a halt to their three-game losing streak by getting ahead early and pouring it on late.
Rutgers scored back-to-back buckets to end the first quarter with a 12-9 lead, before scoring 22 points in the second to mount a 34-23 advantage heading into the locker room at halftime.
From there, it was purely semantics for the Knights’ seniors, headlined by Copper, who scored 11 points in the second half. Rutgers was virtually unconscious from the floor, converting 27-of-54 field goal attempts for an even 50 percent.
Every time the Wolverines put together a run to threaten the lead, the Knights would answer, leading for over 35 minutes of the total 40 minutes of game time.
With just over two minutes gone by in the third period, Michigan guard Siera Thompson sank two free throws to spur a 5-0 run for the Wolverines to close the gap to 36-29.
But Rutgers responded in kind, jumping out to an 8-2 run of its own to put the game out of reach.
It was the Knights defense, which held the Wolverines to 29 points fewer than their average, that got the motor running for Rutgers offense, according to Copper.
“I think we took pride in our defense,” she said postgame. “We played really good defense and our defense turned into offense. We got transition points, and I think it was the defense that really got us going.”
The Knights defense limited Michigan to 33.3 percent shooting from the floor with sophomore guard Katelynn Flaherty the only one to make a dent in Rutgers’ Scarlet Curtain, scoring a team-high 21 points in defeat.
And even that was an accomplishment.
Flaherty, a Point Pleasant, New Jersey, native entered the contest averaging over 22 points per game, but the length of the Knights' backcourt made the Wolverines’ guard work for every shot.
Flaherty finished 7-of-24 shooting from the field, despite her point total. And with no other viable offensive threat, Rutgers throttled Michigan down the stretch.
Although the game was out of hand early, senior guard Briyona Canty refused to lose focus.
“I just was really focused on us. I didn't want us to stop what we were doing,” Canty said. “I didn't really focus on them too much, I just wanted us to continue to push, push, push.”
And push they did.
The Knights scored 20 points off 16 turnovers with most of the damage coming in transition.
By the midway point in the final frame, Rutgers held a 24-point lead when Copper delivered the dagger — a 3-point play with 4:34 remaining in the fourth quarter to get her to 20 points.
“It feels good and I think it was really good for us because you can't really rely on offense,” Copper said, referring to her team’s ability to defend on Sunday. “Once we locked in on what we needed to do defensively, we’re gonna get the easy offense.”
As exciting as the victory may have been for the team from the Banks, especially its seniors, head coach C. Vivian Stringer dealt a harsh dose of reality from the postgame podium.
Stringer reminded reporters that next season’s roster will undergo significant renovation.
“This entire team is going to be gutted,” Stringer said. “(The seniors) have been the backbone of this program for the past four years, period. It's difficult because as a mom, you have your children and you love them and you want them to stay home, but you also know that it's time for them to spread their wings and go to the next stage of life.”
The Knights are hoping to postpone that “next stage” with a run in the Big Ten Conference Tournament beginning Wednesday in Indianapolis.
Rutgers will enter the tournament as the No. 10 seed, poised for a matchup with No. 7 seed Nebraska.
Although the matchup will occur on a neutral court, Copper is confident that her team earned a fresh start with the win on Senior Day, regardless of the Knights' opponent.
“It’s a new season,” Copper said of the Big Ten Tournament. “We have a new slate and are ready to attack it. I think we’re confident and we’re ready.”