Defense keys season sweep of Orange
The backbone of the Rutgers women's basketball team was always defense.
The Scarlet Knights reiterated that yesterday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center against Big East-rival Syracuse, holding the Orange to a 29.2 field goal percentage and forcing 19 turnovers en route to a much needed 54-47 victory.
And despite another sketchy offensive performance by Rutgers, it proved that its backbone could keep it in any game.
"It was interesting because I gave the team a choice of what defense they wanted to play, and they chose to play a [2-3] zone [instead of man-to-man]," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "I did think that in order to pick the tempo up and to play to a point where we recognized who we are, we needed to go into that 55."
The Knights (13-9, 6-3) went into that 55-press, and forced six consecutive turnovers from 3:30 onward and eventually pulled away from the Orange, who ended the contest with 19 turnovers.
After Syracuse's Alexander Kayla converted on both free throw attempts with 38 seconds left, the Knights held onto a three-point lead and brought the ball up the court. After running the shot clock down 10 seconds, junior guard Khadijah Rushdan handed the ball off to sophomore guard Erica Wheeler at the top of the key and the Miami native delivered a 3-point dagger to give the Knights a 50-44 lead with eight seconds left, sealing a victory.
With the win, Rutgers snapped its three-game losing skid and improved to six conference wins, while also completing the season sweep of the Orange.
And with a tough stretch looming, this win was pivotal.
"I tell you what, it's good that we did snap the losing streak," Stringer said. "You know what those games are that are coming up? Can you imagine had we not won, and then we've got Pittsburgh and [No. 8] Notre Dame, [No. 13] DePaul. Are you kidding me? We're just getting into the tough part of our schedule."
Syracuse (16-6, 4-5) held onto the lead in the second half until about eight minutes remained in play, but after Rushdan hooked up with Monique Oliver down low, the sophomore center came alive.
The Knights snagged their first lead of the second half, and the Las Vegas native, who also had four blocks in the contest, went on to score in four of the team's next five possessions and finished with a team-high 15 points.
"I thought that the post-people stepped up and started knocking those shots down," Stringer said. "They had to."
But if not for the craftiness of Rushdan, Oliver may not have thrived down low.
The Wilmington, Del., native snapped out of the offensive lull she suffered during the Knights' losing streak and finished the game with 14 points and nine assists –– three to Oliver in the second half –– to match the total amount of assists for the Orange in the game
"I credit my teammates a lot for being there for me and just keeping me positive and just telling me to continue to shoot and drive," Rushdan said.
The Knights and Orange both had their own cases of offensive success and woes in the first half, as Syracuse entered the locker room with a 25-24 halftime lead.
The Orange capitalized on a six minute Rutgers scoring drought to tie the game at 16 with just under five minutes to play, as Iasia Hemingway and Kayla Alexander notched seven and five points, respectively.
Rutgers kicked off the game with a 12-4 run — a stretch that saw an anemic Syracuse offensive struggle to score. The Orange went 1-for-12 from the field in the game's first nine minutes, making their second field goal of the game with just less than 10 minutes to play.
Made baskets were hard to come by for both teams in the half, as the Knights and Orange shot a modest 35.7 and 23.3 percent from the field, respectively.
But as everyone else struggled, Wheeler opened the game on fire.
The Miami native shot the lights of the RAC out in the first half, going 4-for-6 from the field and ending the period with 10 points.
Wheeler finished the game with 13 points after logging all 40 minutes of action.
"I love that kid," Rushdan said. "She has a lot of energy. All the time, regardless of whether she's knocking shots down or not, she plays with so much energy and its even that much better when she is knocking shots. I can definitely appreciate the effort she put forth and I'm proud of her."
The Knights get one day off before battling Pittsburgh on Tuesday night in the RAC, as they look to get back to their winning ways in conference play.