Missed opportunities stand out as Rutgers' tournament chances fade
The final flurry may have been far too little and a little too late.
The Rutgers women's basketball team appeared to be sitting in the driver's seat for an NCAA Tournament selection last Friday, as the Scarlet Knights (18-14, 9-11) held a 5-point lead over the nation's No. 9 team, Ohio State, when the school's headed into the locker room for halftime in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
But Kelsey Mitchell took the wheel, scoring 25 second-half points en route to a 73-58 Buckeyes win, sending Rutgers' tournament chances careening off a cliff.
The Knights finished the season two wins short of the 20-win line of demarcation that the selection committee holds so dear.
Coupled with the lack of wins over ranked opponents, Rutgers failed to register a victory over a Top-25 team in seven tries, zero eyebrow-raising road wins and a sub .500 conference record, it is unlikely the Knights will be dancing next week.
Despite Mitchell's record-setting performance pushing OSU past Rutgers, the Knights fell only one spot in the RPI rankings to No. 51, according to ncaa.org.
The problem: team's listed 35-50 in RPI have an average of 22.6 wins.
As of the publishing of this update, the team from the Banks sits in the "next four out," according to ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme.
An invite to the Women's National Invitational Tournament would be the likely alternative.
Rutgers took home the WNIT title in 2013-14 and last season they reached the round of 32 in "The Dance" following a spirited 79-66 overtime win over Seton Hall, before Connecticut called a halt to the Knights' NCAA run, last April.
When trying to discern what went wrong, four specific games from the regular season jump out.
Rutgers carried a 37-33 lead into the second half at Iowa and took a 61-60 lead with 6:57 left to play on a layup from senior wing Kahleah Copper.
It would have been the team’s sixth-straight win.
But the Hawkeyes outscored the Knights 9-4 in the final seven minutes, stifling an opportunity for their first signature win.
Rutgers rebounded with a blowout win over Wisconsin at home, but then Nebraska negated the Knights' 2-point lead heading into the fourth quarter in Lincoln Jan. 16, outscoring Rutgers 24-11 in the final frame for an 11-point win.
All of a sudden what was once a secondary concern had become primary cause for regression.
The trend continued in a pair of losses to Michigan State.
In the first meeting, the Knights held a 44-40 advantage with 8:21 left to play, before faltering to finish on the wrong side of an 18-4 Spartans run to close out the game, spurring a 9-point win.
Perhaps seeking revenge, Rutgers ran out to a 17-4 lead after the first quarter Feb. 18, led by 9 points after three and held a 65-60 lead with 1:53 left on the game clock.
But the Knights' inability to close out games reared its ugly head again and Rutgers fell 70-67, this time on the its home floor.
“I think they had enough sense to know, back it out when we’ve got possession of the ball," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer following the Knights' second loss to the Spartans. “It just speaks to us not having the kind of control that we needed.”
Foul trouble plagued Rutgers in both games, sidelining center Rachel Hollivay for big stretches of the final meeting between the teams.
And the depth just wasn’t there to compensate.
“We’re all hurt by it,” Hollivay said after the 3-point defeat. “If I come out somebody has to capitalize on defense. They have to rebound, they have to — I mean, I’m not the only one who can block shots on this team, everybody can get it done. So if I come out somebody else gotta be ready.”
Now Stringer and her coaching staff will have to begin the process of rebuilding a roster that will lose six seniors, four of whom were fixtures in the starting lineup.
The WNIT would be a likely landing spot for Rutgers this postseason, if Stringer is willing to accept an invitation.
In the end, Rutgers squandered its chance to dance in the NCAA Tournament by faltering down the stretch.
Stringer summed up her team’s shortcomings after the second loss to MSU.
“It’s been our story the whole year,” the Hall of Fame head coach said. “We’ve been freezing when it comes down to the fourth quarter. We just (freeze). And I’m not happy about this but, that’s exactly what’s happening.”