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Knights rebound from losses to top 10 teams

<p>Sophomore center Monique Oliver is carrying the Knights in
Big'East play, when she averages 20.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per
game over four Rutgers victories.</p>

Sophomore center Monique Oliver is carrying the Knights in Big'East play, when she averages 20.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game over four Rutgers victories.

Not long after much of the student body departed from the Banks for winter recess, the Rutgers women's basketball team found itself on the wrong end of a pair of blowouts against No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 Texas A&M.

The Scarlet Knights lost those games by a combined score of 166-101, lost its most seasoned player to injury and looked like a lost team.

What a difference a couple of weeks makes — now the Knights ride a four-game winning streak back to Piscataway to welcome in a new semester.

Right along with No. 2 Connecticut (16-1, 6-0) and No. 14 DePaul (16-2, 4-0), Rutgers remains the only other Big East team undefeated in conference play this season with its most recent victory coming Saturday night in Cincinnati.

Far removed from its early season thrashing of Big East foe and then-No. 11 Georgetown, Rutgers (11-6, 4-0) strung together a trio of victories to build momentum heading into the thick of conference play.

And even though the team's first Big East game took place a month before its second, something else remained constant beside the wins — the play of sophomore center Monique Oliver.

Oliver continues to have her way in conference games, as she has tied for or held the team lead in scoring in all four contests, averaging 20.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

Just before the team's slide against top 10 foes, Rutgers watched its Hall of Fame head coach reach yet another milestone in a career full of accolades.

Not that head coach C. Vivian Stringer is keeping track.

"It really wasn't something that I was aware of," Stringer said after her 850th career win against Kean on Dec. 15. "Coach [Carlene] Mitchell called me before I left the house and told me to wear something decent. I really had no idea. It touches me because I realize, ‘Wow, that's a long time and how many years and how many young women made that happen.'

"That's inconceivable and don't ask me about 900 because I have no idea."

Junior guard Khadijah Rushdan paved the way for the victory with a 22-point performance on 8-for-14 shooting from the field and continues to lead the team in scoring, averaging 14 points a game.

"It's great," Rushdan said. "Coach Stringer is a great coach and for her to accomplish all these, especially with three teams, and to have 850 wins, I'm just proud of her. It's a great accomplishment."

The injury bug paid a visit to the Knights over the past month, and the team's backcourt got the worst of it.

Junior guard Nikki Speed is out indefinitely with an injury to her left foot sustained before the team beat Villanova, 57-43, on Jan. 8. Rushdan also battled a bruised knee and missed two games prior to returning to help beat the Wildcats, scoring seven points in the win.

"I was just trying to take my time. I really wanted to be back for the start of the Big East," Rushdan said. "When you come back from an injury, a lot of it can be mental. I thought about my knee a couple of times, but other than that it was fine."

But now with Speed out of the lineup, the team will call on sophomore guard Erica Wheeler and freshman guard Daisha Simmons to step up in heightened roles.

Still, Rushdan doesn't see any reason why the team should miss a beat.

"I'm definitely confident in them [Simmons and Wheeler]. We compete every day in practice, and those two are growing as individuals," Rushdan said.

Junior transfer Julie Paunovic saw her first action in a Knights uniform on Jan. 3 in a 60-50 win against George Washington.

The Australia native went 1-for-2 from the field and finished the game with two points, scoring her first basket for her new team since transferring from Casper College (Wyo.).

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