Rutgers rides high into matchup with No. 25 Spartans
Winners of three games in a row and four out of its last five, the Rutgers women’s basketball team has positioned itself to make a push for the postseason beyond the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
In order to strengthen their NCAA Tournament credentials, the Scarlet Knights (16-10, 7-7) will need to defeat No. 25 Michigan State (18-7, 9-4) at the Rutgers Athletic Center Thursday night.
In the first meeting between the two schools Jan. 19, the Spartans handled the Knights on their home floor in East Lansing, winning 59-48.
But the teams that take the floor Thursday are entirely different from those that met 30 days ago.
After losing three of its last four, Michigan State has fallen eight spots in the AP Top 25 from No. 17, capped by a loss at Nebraska, 73-66, on Sunday.
Rutgers has engineered a dramatic turnaround that began with a win over Nebraska 66-56 Jan. 30.
But the turning point, the game that changed the team, was the second of the Knights three consecutive wins, an emotional rollercoaster that culminated in a last second lay-up by junior Tyler Scaife to carry Rutgers to victory over Northwestern Feb. 10.
Head coach C. Vivian Stringer had been away from the team for two games in order to attend to her ailing mother, Thelma Stoner, who has since passed.
The matchup with the Wildcats was Stringer’s first time back on the bench since burying her mother and the frenetic finish was a special moment for the winningest head coach in school history.
“First of all, I wanna thank my team for really staying together, especially the team as well as the coaches,” she said, fighting her emotions after the 61-59 win.
It was vintage Stringer.
In search of their first signature win of the season, the Knights negated Northwestern’s potent offensive attack and got themselves in position to win the game in the closing seconds.
Senior wing Kahleah Copper credited Stringer with helping her make an adjustment.
“It's so funny because earlier in that quarter, there was a possession where I was coming down the floor and I didn't have my eyes up and coach had battled me about passing the ball, getting my eyes up and passing the ball,” Copper said postgame.
With the game tied at 59-59, junior forward Nia Coffey, the Wildcats top-scorer, drove the lane past Copper for a chance at a game-winner. Senior center Rachel Hollivay provided help from the backside, bailing her teammate out by swatting Coffey’s shot with less than 10 ticks left to play.
Copper corralled the rebound, found Scaife all alone, and the rest is history.
“That play happened so fast,” Copper said. “Rachel got the block, I got the rebound and I had my eyes up and I saw Tyler and I got her the ball and she finished.”
It was almost poetic.
The senior defensive stalwart makes the stop, the team’s leading rebounder grabs the loose ball and hurls it ahead to the leading scorer who delivers the game-winning bucket.
It was Stringer’s presence that made the play possible and after it was all over, Scaife identified her head coach as the one responsible for the win.
“The fact that we did it for Coach Stringer makes it that much sweeter,” she said. “We’re happy that we got that win (over Northwestern), but mainly (that) one was for Coach Stringer. It really wasn't for the team, nobody but Coach Stringer.”
It was defense, a staple of Stringer’s 21-year tenure on the Banks, that propelled Rutgers to victory over the Wildcats just three days after the head coach said goodbye to her hero.
And the foundation of that defense is Hollivay.
“Honestly, we wouldn't have won that game if it hadn't been for Rachel,” Scaife said. “She helped Kah out on the block, Kah got the rebound, pushed the ball, so (those) two made the lay-up easy for me.”
Now Hollivay draws another difficult assignment in MSU forward Aerial Powers.
Powers sits fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (20.7 points per game) and fifth in rebounds (8.6).
In the first meeting, Powers posted a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Hollivay tallied just 4 points with six rebounds and six blocks.
The senior from Columbus, Mississippi, won’t need to score 20 points, but she will definitely need to up her production on the glass in order for the Knights to control the tempo in the paint.
Spartan’s guard Tori Jankoska finished with 15 points the first time around, right at her average for the season. Jankoska stretches the floor with her ability to shoot from distance, converting 51 3-pointers in 2015-16.
If Rutgers can continue to employ Stringer’s stingy defensive strategy — one that has them sitting atop the Big Ten in scoring defense and blocked shots — and score 60 points, it will likely slay the Spartans and secure the first win over a top 25 program for the Knights this season.
If not, it could be a long night.
But with Stringer on the bench, Rutgers always has a shot.
She has become a virtual institution in Piscataway since her arrival in 1995. And after that crucial win over Northwestern, Stringer wanted to show her gratitude to the Knights faithful, while explaining the difficulty of her process.
“I just want to thank the fans for their hearts,” Stringer said. “This has been an extremely rough month for me. I try not to talk about it but the team received me well and the coaches did, I'm just trying to get back into the swing of things.”