Final Four still in minds of Junaid, McCurdy
As freshmen, Rashidat Junaid and Myia McCurdy played on the biggest stage in their sport — the NCAA Championship game. While the Rutgers women's basketball team lost that game, it was not out of the realm of possibility to think the Scarlet Knights would be there again.
Flash forward three years, and the Knights are in the midst of one of their toughest seasons in recent memory. In that span, the team advanced as far as the Elite Eight, but not back to the hallowed company of the Final Four. Questions continue to dog the Knights of whether they will even make the NCAA Tournament — let alone win it all.
Junaid still has hope, while McCurdy sees shadows of the past cast upon the Knights' current situation.
"When I look back on my freshman year, I think about perseverance, because we had about the same number of losses that we do now," McCurdy said. "People were saying we weren't going to make it, just like people are saying now that we can't make it to the NCAA Tournament. But we believed in ourselves."
The pair of seniors will be honored tonight, along with classmate Brittany Ray, at the Knights' final home match of the season against Louisville.
For Junaid, the four-year journey that begins its final chapter tomorrow did not begin on the court, rather on the bench. The 6-foot-4 center was a year behind standout Kia Vaughn, meaning her time was limited. When Vaughn graduated last year, it was finally Junaid's turn.
From a player who entered the season with only 17 career starts under her belt, Junaid was ready for the next challenge, but she never forgets that freshman year when she and her teammates pulled off the unthinkable.
"I think [the national championship game] was a great experience at the time," Junaid said. "I don't think I appreciated it as much as I should have because I was young and in my mind I was thinking ‘Oh, I have three more years to get there.' But it's not that easy."
A long and athletic defensive specialist, McCurdy's playing career came to a temporary halt during her sophomore season when she suffered a knee injury.
Back on the court a season later, McCurdy became the focal point of head coach C. Vivian Stringer's 55-press. The forward put her athleticism and intensity to use, stifling opponents with her relentless pressure.
"I'm always going to remember the 55," McCurdy said. "Everybody labeled me as ‘The 55 Girl.' I'll remember always working hard, not just on offense but on defense. Getting stops. Shutting people down. Being intense and being the hardest worker on the court every single time, and that's something that will carry over in life. Whatever you want to do you always want to be the best and never settle for second in anything."
With their final regular season game looming, Stringer had nothing but glowing words for her seniors.
"[The seniors have] always been one that has wrapped themselves around the tradition and tried to uphold it with a great deal of hard work," Stringer said. "Whatever path they choose, I think the [the seniors] will be very successful, especially because I know that they will transfer their work ethic from the basketball court to their profession."
Both McCurdy and Junaid hope to play basketball after graduation, potentially overseas. But there's still tonight's game and the Big East Tournament.
And maybe even the NCAA Tournament, where the seniors will have their last chance to step back in time, to bring their careers full circle.
Just ask McCurdy, who will tell you it isn't over. Not yet.
"The same thing can apply to us, this team, right now," she said. "All we have to do is refocus and believe, and things can happen."