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Johnnies offer opportuntity to illustrate year’s changes

<p>Senior forward April Sykes leads the Scarlet Knights with 14.6
points per game this season, the highest scoring average of her

Senior forward April Sykes leads the Scarlet Knights with 14.6 points per game this season, the highest scoring average of her career.

A lot changed in the past year for the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

In the NCAA Tournament last season, No. 2-seed and eventual national champion Texas A&M eliminated the Scarlet Knights. The No. 7 Knights are playing for a similar seed in the national tournament a year later and hope to contend for an end result similar to the Aggies.

For April Sykes, it all started Feb. 1 last season against St. John’s.

The Starkville, Miss., native was still in an early stage of becoming the potent scorer she expected to be as the No. 2 recruit in the nation in 2008.

But occasionally Sykes’ game resembled her early days, as was the case last year against the Red Storm. The then-junior played all 40 minutes but did not put a single point on the board, turning the ball over five times.

Even without any scoring from the Knights’ top offensive option, St. John’s barely beat Rutgers, 51-48.

Rutgers (15-2, 4-0) ventures to St. John’s tonight a new team, one favored to beat the Red Storm for the first time since 2009.

The Knights already lost two Big East matchups before they faced the Red Storm last year. St. John’s (11-7, 3-2) is on pace to finish toward the middle of the Big East.

Rutgers took a leap in the standings last week to tie Notre Dame for the top spot in conference. It consistently beats teams statistically tougher than the Johnnies, with its only losses against two of the top-13 teams in the nation.

Some of that progress derives from Sykes’ improved consistency. The senior leads the team with 14.6 points per game.

But Sykes is now a rebounding threat, as well. She logs minutes at both the three and the four spots and notched a double-double 10 days ago against Cincinnati.

But in order to avoid a fourth consecutive loss against St. John’s, Rutgers needs to stop the Red Storm’s backcourt.

The junior starting trio of Eugeneia McPherson, Shenneika Smith and Nadirah McKenith lead St. John’s in scoring, combining to average almost two-thirds of the team’s 62.8 points per game.

But the Knights bring energy of their own in the backcourt, where either Khadijah Rushdan or Erica Wheeler consistently goes on scoring purges.

Wheeler comes off a highlight-reel game in which the junior scored a career-high 23 points, three of which came on a buzzer beater in overtime in a 71-68 victory Saturday against No. 15 Louisville.

Meanwhile, Rushdan leads the Rutgers backcourt in scoring with 12.1 points per game this season.

Junior center Monique Oliver is vital in exploiting St. John’s weak point: the frontcourt.

Oliver was a bright spot the last time out against the Johnnies, notching 22 points and 11 rebounds. While another 20-10 performance is a lot to ask of the Las Vegas native, Oliver has been a consistent double-double threat all season with 12.1 points and 8.1 boards per game.

All of the key pieces returned for Rutgers this season, and they continue to prove they are much better than a year ago.

And while St. John’s is not an elite opponent, tonight’s game marks another chance for the Knights to show how much they changed in the past year.

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