Rutgers pursues second straight road win against Illinois
On the heels of the most emotional win of the season, the Rutgers women's basketball team will hit the road to take on Illinois (8-16, 1-12) Saturday evening with an opportunity to inch closer to NCAA Tournament contention.
The Scarlet Knights (15-10, 5-7) bested Northwestern 61-59 Wednesday night on a last second lay-in from junior guard Tyler Scaife, moving themselves up four spots in the latest NCAA RPI rankings to No. 39.
Now Rutgers will have a chance to further improve its resume in Champaign against an Illini team the Knights dominated in the first meeting of the season between the schools, 67-54, at Rutgers Athletic Center Jan. 13.
The win over the Wildcats Wednesday appeared to galvanize head coach C. Vivian Stringer’s team in her return to the sideline after she missed the two previous games due to the passing of her mother last week.
“The team learned and they worked hard," Stringer said. "They didn’t give up and we’ve been seeing that."
Defense was the key to victory for Rutgers, an aspect that has been a staple for the program during Stringer's 21-year tenure on the Banks. The Wildcats came to the RAC averaging 77.5 points per game but were held under 60 by Stringer's stingy defense.
With the clock running under 10 seconds and the game tied at 59, Northwestern forward Nia Coffey had what she thought was a good look in the lane.
Knights' senior center Rachel Hollivay came to the rescue on the weak side, swatting Coffey's shot into the arms of teammate Kahleah Copper who rushed the ball up to midcourt before finding Scaife beneath the basket for the win.
"I was telling myself 'Just time it, time it, time it.' So as soon as she just let it go, I just swatted it. As Coach Stringer said, 'You gotta stop swattin,'" Hollivay said, attempting to impersonate Stringer's mantra in practice. "But I had to that time."
The senior from Columbus, Mississippi, finished the game with six blocked shots, extending her school record for blocks in a career (306) and her lead as the top shot-blocker in the Big Ten Conference. She also added 4 points and six rebounds to her statline.
Last time Hollivay was matched up with the Illini, she delivered her most dominating performance of the season on both ends of the floor.
The 6-foot-4 center scored 14 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and rejected six shots in a game Rutgers ran away with after mounting a 20-9 lead after the first quarter.
This time around, the biggest challenge for the Knights will be the venue.
Rutgers is 2-8 away from the RAC in the 2015-16 campaign, a number that was improved last Sunday when the Knights handled Penn State in Happy Valley, 74-62.
Copper, a senior wing, intimated after the Northwestern game that the coaching staff had turned up the heat in the last week, highlighting where the players need to focus their attention if they want to make a run beyond the regular season and conference tournament.
“I think that the coaches put a little more pressure on us coming into this game just making us more aware of where we are right now as far as the Big Ten and also looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament,” Copper said. “I think that it was some good pressure for us. I don’t think we really looked at the opponent, we just looked at it as somebody without a Rutgers jersey on and we came out and we played defense.”
Illinois is a less than formidable opponent, having lost 12-of-13 conference games, with the only win coming in the follow-up to the first meeting in Piscataway, where the Illini beat Wisconsin 71-65. If the visitors can play within themselves, they should be heading home happy.
But the clock is ticking.
With only five games left on the regular season slate and No. 17 Michigan State and No. 5 Maryland waiting immediately after Saturday’s tilt, the Knights need to kick it into gear at Illinois.
Rutgers biggest boost may well come from the bench, though.
Stringer declared she has returned to the team, expecting to be on the bench for the foreseeable future.
“I’m here, I’m back and I’m hoping we can ride this out and do the right thing,” Stringer said. “And I’m hoping that we can go ahead and see whoever we see as just like Kah said and Tyler, just another opponent. We just need to put it all together and get it done.”