RU clinches double-bye with win, league help
SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — Only two games ago did a one-win Big East squad give the Rutgers women's basketball team everything it had on its home floor.
The Scarlet Knights found themselves in a similar situation last night at Walsh Gymnasium, where they took the floor against intrastate rival Seton Hall, the last-place team in the conference.
The Knights made sure to take care of business early this time, crashing the Pirates' Senior Night with a 71-47 victory.
And with Louisville's loss to lowly Providence, head coach C. Vivian Stringer's team earned itself a No. 4 seed for this weekend's Big East tournament in Hartford, Conn., putting off the Knights' (18-11, 11-5) opener until Sunday at the XL Center.
"I'm extremely proud because I think it was a real challenge and I think we learned and we grew as the season progressed," Stringer said. "I'm extremely critical because I expect a style of play all the time, but I can't help but be proud."
SHU (8-21, 1-15) struggled all evening to solve the Knights' man-to-man scheme and turned the ball over early and often in the Pirates' final home contest of the season.
Junior forward April Sykes picked up right where she left off, lighting it up from the field and finishing with a game-high 25 points.
The performance marked the Starkville, Miss., native's 21st double-figure output this season, as the team's leading scorer returns to familiar form with the Knights on the brink of tournament season.
"We come into Big East every year expecting to win," Sykes said. "Last year we finished I think sixth or seventh in the conference. We're the No. 4 seed right now and that's three slots ahead of where [the Big East] put us [in the preseason]. I think that shocked a lot of people in the conference."
Sykes knocked down her final 3-pointer of the game with less than two minutes to go and a play later subbed out for freshman forward Briana Hutchen to thunderous applause.
The Pirates hung around in the early going, but thanks to a 17-5 Knights run to close out the half, Stringer and Co. entered the locker room with a 10-point advantage. Rutgers turned to a man-to-man scheme defensively and it worked in the Knights' favor, as SHU shot just 31.8 percent from the field en route to 20 first half points.
Junior forward Chelsey Lee shouldered the load in the post once again, shooting an efficient 5-for-7 to end regulation with 16 of the Knights' 26 points in the paint.
The Parkway Academy (Fla.) product continued her end-of-season tear, and just like Sykes, clicked during the team's four-game winning streak.
The Knights played themselves into a double-bye heading into tournament play with the streak. Rutgers entered the night needing both No. 22 Marquette and Louisville to drop their contests and also had to win its season finale.
Luckily for Stringer, the Knights controlled their own destiny and get to watch the first two rounds of the conference tournament, which begins Thursday night.
For Rutgers, which went through its fair share of injuries in the backcourt with junior guards Khadijah Rushdan and Nikki Speed, the extra rest means everything at this juncture of the season.
"We need the rest," Stringer said. "We might have been able to get away with it if maybe we played on the second day, but we've basically given ourselves an opportunity to get some rest."
Although the Knights shot 52 percent and blew out a lower-caliber opponent, Stringer's squad coughed up the ball 19 times and at times played down to the Pirates' level.
In the eyes of the Hall of Fame head coach, there is still plenty of room to grow, as a deep run-in the Big East tournament can do nothing but help the Knights' NCAA tournament seeding.
"We are still a work in progress, but I think that we're on our way," Stringer said. "When we can recognize and have standards for ourselves, that's key."