Knights earn semifinal berth with victory
HARTFORD, Conn. –– Entering the Big East Tournament on a double-bye is not something head coach C. Vivian Stringer embraced.
But despite the wait, the Rutgers women's basketball team's youth and a rematch with No. 23 Marquette, the Scarlet Knights showed that earning the No. 4 seed in the Big East Tournament was no fluke.
The proof lays in the Knights' 68-62 victory against the Golden Eagles, earning the team a spot in the tournament semifinals and a date with No. 1 Connecticut.
"I was fearful that we would have a problem because we hadn't played," Stringer said. "It certainly helps to get things flowing. Thank goodness that we've got that game under our belt … I have a feeling that someone like UConn is going to get our attention."
After being down by as many as 13 points with four minutes remaining in regulation, Marquette turned to its full-court press in the closing moments hoping to trim the deficit.
A 3-pointer by Tatiyiana McMorris with less than a minute to go cut the Golden Eagles' deficit to just six, but all head coach Terri Mitchell could do in the closing minutes was foul and hope for Knights misses.
As Marquette (23-8) was over the foul limit, Rutgers went to the line for two shots three different times in the final 40 seconds, going 5-for-6 in that span to put the game out of reach.
"I thought we definitely had it in us and it didn't happen," Mitchell said. "I always know that we can get defensive stops. I mean it happened at the end, but it was a little too late then. We put on the pressure, and probably in retrospect we needed to press a lot sooner."
One of the main reasons Marquette fell short was the resurgence of junior forward April Sykes after halftime. A 16-point explosion after a quiet first period allowed the Knights to jump back out to a double-digit lead midway through the second half and was enough to hold off a Golden Eagles comeback.
The Knights' (19-11) leading scorer now owns 22 double-figure performances this season, continuing to show up when her team needs her most.
"Coach Stringer's not the type of coach to praise you when you're not doing the best, and I love her for that," Sykes said. "I hate it at times, but in the second half she got in my chest and … just told me I was forcing it a lot. Usually when I force things I don't look good. In the second half she just told me to relax."
Stringer also challenged her post combination of junior forward Chelsey Lee and sophomore center Monique Oliver to crash the boards more in the second half, something the pair struggled to do in the opening stanza.
The two answered the call, and much like the first meeting between the two teams, played big for the Knights down low.
"I only had one rebound in the beginning," said Oliver, who finished the game 18 points and seven boards. "Chelsey had like three, so we knew we had to step it up on the rebounding end."
For the greater part of the season, the Knights earned a reputation of getting off to slow starts in conference play. Rutgers snapped out of that lull yesterday and came out firing to kick off regulation.
Early offense by sophomore guard Erica Wheeler and key finds in the post to Oliver built the Knights a double-digit lead early on in the period, as Wheeler started the game 4-for-5 from the field and finished with 14 points.
After being tabbed as the No. 7 team in the conference in the preseason, Stringer's squad now finds itself facing a rematch against the country's top team and tournament host tonight at the XL Center.
The Hall of Fame coach is well aware that another 16-turnover showing will not be so kind to the Knights against a team that has not lost a Big East game in more than three years.
"I hope our ‘A' game comes overnight," Stringer said. "We're going to need it [tonight]. We're capable of playing better and we better be able to play better against UConn."