RU relies on experience to rally past No. 19 WVU
The Rutgers women's basketball team is no stranger to starting games off slowly.
The Scarlet Knights are also quite familiar with digging themselves into too deep holes and more often than not, coming up short in those uphill climbs.
But over the past two contests, head coach C. Vivian Stringer and Co. showed a knack for winning tight ball games, this time by pulling away from No. 19 West Virginia late to win, 67-58, in Piscataway.
"I think that our team epitomizes the ultimate team because I said earlier [this season], this was not a good team," said Stringer, whose team finished 12-1 at home this season with the victory.
"It was a long time coming, but I think that we've gotten to the point where I felt better, [and] I think the team feels better in terms of our being able to control our own destiny. You ask was it bad getting down? Well now we know that we can still fight back."
Sophomore guard Erica Wheeler, who notched a career high 22 points, scored her final two points of the game with eight seconds to go, putting the stamp on the team's third-straight victory after the Knights trailed the Mountaineers (21-8, 7-8) by as many as 11 points.
And once again, junior forward Chelsey Lee had her hand in deciding the Knights' (17-11, 10-5) fate, sparking the team's string of 11 unanswered points in the final minute with a 3-point play.
The play brought the fans at the Louis Brown Athletic Center to their feet and sent Lee into a frenzy for the second straight contest.
"Coach just called the play for the post, and we were mainly just trying to get the ball into the post and get the foul," Wheeler said. "We weren't really looking for a shot so coach called the play for the post."
But without the early output of both Wheeler and junior forward April Sykes, the play would have never come to fruition.
Sykes scored 18 points to go with Wheeler's career performance, as the two combined for 38 of the team's 67 points to keep the Knights in the contest.
And while their showings may overshadow Lee and junior guard Khadijah Rushdan — who scored eight and 11 points, respectively — the latter duo's presence on the floor cannot be overlooked.
"What Khadijah does and Chelsey does for our team doesn't have to show in our stats all the time," Sykes said. "Myself and Erica — we're the shooters of the team. Everybody knows that, opponents know that, we know that. When we're knocking shots down, it's hard not to be us. That's leading with the scoring and taking great shots in the flow of the game."
Following a foul down low on West Virginia's Liz Repella with 10 seconds to go in regulation, the guard went to the line and converted two free-throws to break her team's scoring drought. But by that time, it was too little too late.
A sloppy game on West Virginia's part proved to be the difference in the contest, as the Knights turned 22 Mountaineer turnovers into as many points. Stringer turned to a triangle-and-two defense in hopes of disrupting West Virginia's backcourt, but Repella still got on the board with 20 points, while forward Korrine Campbell notched 14 points of her own
Unfortunately for WVU head coach Mike Carey, the pair also combined for eight turnovers.
"Definitely the turnovers," Carey said on what led to his team's demise. "We just didn't take care of the ball. Sometimes it was because we didn't reverse, sometimes it was because they made a good play [and] sometimes it was because we didn't attack it. When you become tentative, you have a tendency to turn it over really quickly."
Rutgers now owns a three-game winning streak heading into its season finale on tonight against in-state rival Seton Hall.
And with another display of grittiness, the Knights showed they are ready for tournament season.
"We're seniors. We're not juniors anymore," Sykes said of her fellow classmates Lee, Rushdan and Nikki Speed. "We've played the whole season, and we know how to win a game, give a game up and come back and win. I think it's great for us to be at that stage right now, especially going into the Big East Tournament."