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Knights hope defensive momentum carries over

The Rutgers women's basketball team broke out of its three-game losing streak Sunday against Syracuse thanks to a stifling defensive effort.

But with the heart of Big East play approaching, head coach C. Vivian Stringer and the Scarlet Knights cannot afford a letdown tonight against Pittsburgh.

"They finally realized that there's a sense of urgency," Stringer said after the team's win 54-47 win against Syracuse. "Let's see what happens [tonight]."

Defense proved to be the deciding factor against the Orange at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, as the Knights (13-9, 6-3) forced 19 turnovers and held their conference rival to a 29.3 shooting percentage.

To duplicate their success and make it two wins in a row against the Panthers (11-11, 3-6), the Knights have to do much of the same against a Pitt team that shoots 42.8 percent from the field.

Senior guard Taneisha Harrison leads Pitt with 14 points per game to go with a 44.2 percent shooting clip.

But the St. John's College transfer is not the only offensive spark the Panthers boast.

Senior guard Jania Sims and senior forward Chelsea Cole also anchor the experienced Pitt squad. Sims averages 13.2 points per game and Cole, a Rancocas Valley High School product, is just shy of averaging a double-double with 10.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest.

Stringer's 55-press worked to perfection against the Orange, so do not be surprised if the Knights take a similar approach against the 12th-ranked team in the Big East.

"As with anything, it's not a coach being brilliant or anything," Stringer said of the 55-press. "It's the effort that the individuals put into what it is that they're doing."

The Knights bested the Panthers, 52-44, last season in Pittsburgh, and with games against top-15-caliber conference opponents looming, a win would go a long way in deciding postseason seeding.

Luckily for Stringer, junior guard Khadijah Rushdan snapped out of her recent offensive struggles and created plenty of offense from the point in her last time out.

The Wilmington, Del., native converted 14 points and also dished out nine assists, with a number of those dimes coming down the stretch to sophomore center Monique Oliver, who finished the game with a team-high 15 points.

"I believe that Monique really has good hands, and she's always watching me, so she's able to catch my passes," Rushdan said.

With a 13-point scoring outburst from sophomore Erica Wheeler — her 10th double-digit scoring effort of the season — Rutgers stayed in the game against 'Cuse long enough to seal the victory.

Junior forward April Sykes registered just eight points last game for the Knights and still seemed uncomfortable with her shot against the Orange.

Stringer started freshman guard Daisha Simmons over Sykes against Syracuse in hopes to clear her mind and let her see some action from the bench.

The Starkville, Miss., still had her struggles from the field, but hitting the reset button should bode well for the Knights' leading scorer tonight, when the team hopes to improve to 10-1 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

The Panthers' visit to Piscataway marks the first game in a slew of key conference matchups for Stringer's team.

And for the Hall of Fame head coach, seeing is believing.

"It will speak a lot to our growth as a team if we can really fend off great competition with some outstanding teams and pull off some wins," Stringer said. "Then we'll know that we're ready, and to be honest with you, I don't know that right now."  

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