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Loss raises questions of depth

<p>Freshman forward Betnijah Laney replaced senior April Sykes but
played limited minutes because of her high foul total.</p>

Freshman forward Betnijah Laney replaced senior April Sykes but played limited minutes because of her high foul total.

The good news for Rutgers head women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer is she has one of the deepest benches in the program’s recent history.

The bad news: Sometimes utilizing that bench is a fatality.

Stringer gave heavy minutes to the bench in Tuesday’s 62-57 loss to St. John’s, especially to senior guard Nikki Speed and freshman forward Betnijah Laney. But the Hall of Fame head coach exercised that depth because of foul trouble and injury.

When Speed does not start, she is often one of the main staples off the bench. But she had to play little extra because of junior guard Erica Wheeler’s four fouls.

The foul trouble did not stop there for the No. 7 Scarlet Knights (15-3, 4-1) backcourt.

Stringer did not even take fifth-year senior Khadijah Rushdan out of the game at Carnesecca Arena. But the officials sent Rushdan to the bench after the Wilmington, Del., native fouled out following 38 consecutive minutes on the floor.

The St. John’s backcourt drove to the basket and earned a combined 23 free throw shots off of late fouls or lay-ups.

“We knew they weren’t persistent shooting from the outside, and they weren’t [on Tuesday],” Stringer said. “Instead of moving our feet, according to the officials, we fouled.”

The problems did not end in the backcourt. In fact, the problems began in the frontcourt when senior forward April Sykes limped to the bench two minutes into the game after diving for a loose ball.

Laney subbed in, but she only contributed to the Knights’ foul trouble, notching her fourth foul six minutes into the second half.

Sykes watched from the bench until Laney’s fouls forced Sykes back into the game. Still, she did not appear to be fully healthy, converting only one field goal in the second half.

“We always lose when the opposing team shoots more free throws than we do,” Sykes said. “We know who we are — we just weren’t smooth.”

Stringer has not utilized the bench in Big East play as much as she did earlier in the season, and she utilized it less so against the highest-ranked Big East team they faced.

In a double-overtime win Saturday against then-No. 15 Louisville, only Speed left the bench for more than six total minutes. Rushdan, Sykes, Wheeler and junior center Monique Oliver each played 39 minutes or more.

Despite the lengthy playing time, Rutgers pulled out the 71-68 victory at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. Bench players scored only three of those points.

Stringer experimented with bench players in non-conference play, but also in blowout minutes.

The loss to St. John’s (12-7, 4-2) was the first conference loss for Rutgers and also the first time Stringer used the bench liberally in a competitive matchup.

The Knights face a team of similar record Saturday when they travel to South Florida (11-8, 3-2).

In order to avoid déjà vu, Rutgers needs to avoid fouling as frequently, both to keep its starters on the floor and to keep the Bulls off the charity stripe.

And once again, Stringer must gamble with decisions as to how to utilize her bench.

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