Revenge factor in play as RU heads to Cali
The challenge of taking on top-tier teams early in a season is something that head coach C. Vivian Stringer embraces.
But when the Rutgers women's basketball team takes on California in Berkeley, Calif., today, it may be seeking more than a win against a quality program.
The Scarlet Knights also have their sights set on redemption.
"I wouldn't say payback, but just, you know, to redeem ourselves," said forward Chelsey Lee. "We were young. We want to just show that we've grown since then."
Lee, one of four juniors who made the same trip to California as a freshman, remembers the trek all too well and not for good reason.
California out-rebounded, out-shot and recorded more free-throw attempts than the Knights to the tune of a 66-52 victory.
In short, the Golden Bears straight up outplayed Stringer's team.
"It was embarrassing," said the Hall of Fame coach. "We didn't go to a game, we went to a track meet. They were put in front all the time. So hopefully we've learned more from our experiences. I think that we've learned a lot since that time."
With the same core together in junior guards Khadijah Rushdan and Nikki Speed, as well as forwards April Sykes and Lee, the team expects a different result this time around.
Stringer's squad turned to the gametape to mark areas of improvement and simultaneously spark some extra motivation.
For Rushdan, the point guard and leading returning scorer from a year ago, learning from that loss has been paramount to the growth of the quartet of juniors.
"You could basically say we got embarrassed," Rushdan said. "We have almost the same group. I mean the freshman class down there understands the way we need to approach this game.
"We don't want to go out to Cali just for a trip to Cali. We want to go out there to win those games."
While much of the group hardly saw the floor in the double-digit loss, one junior made her mark.
Sykes, ranked the No. 2 women's basketball recruit coming out of high school by Hoopgurlz.com, recorded one of the best games of her career in just her third game, ending the contest with 18 points while shooting 4-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Though similar production was hard to come by last season when the forward shot just 15.8 percent from three-point land, Sykes approaches this year's opener just like she approaches any other game.
With a new number and newfound comfort, Sykes looks to once again establish herself as a deadly 3-point shooter.
"I think just me doing whatever I have to do on the court in order to help my team," Sykes said of the keys to her confidence. "Just staying relaxed and not getting so caught up into the game and just staying with the game plan."
A confident Sykes could go a long way in determining a Rutgers victory, but there is no question point guard play will be the deciding factor.
Rushdan takes the helm at the position after seeing significant time last season on the wing to then-point guard, Brittany Ray.
Though the St. Elizabeth High School (Del.) product made it clear that she is confident with her ascended role, Stringer realizes that the point guard situation, be it with Rushdan running the point or her classmate Speed, is not entirely where it needs to be.
"It's definitely a work continuing to make progress," Stringer said. " I think that we need to know how to win and how to think like winners. I continue to challenge the guards to really feel the game."
The Golden Bears will be no slouch and return five sophomores from last season, all of whom averaged at least 19 minutes per game.
And after winning an NIT Championship last season with a young core, Cal should be much improved this time around, providing the perfect early test for the youth-laden Knights.
Add the fact that Stringer leads her team against No. 2 Stanford Sunday, and that test gets even harder.
But the Knights wouldn't have it any other way.
"It gives us a chance to see where we are and the things that we need to work on," Rushdan said. "I definitely think that it helps. Right from the beginning we're able to see the things we need to work on, the things that we're good at and the things we need to focus on."
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