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NCAA Tournament fate hangs in balance

<p>Junior wing Betnijah Laney collected 24 points in Rutgers’ 74-68 win Jan. 25 at Temple. More is at stake tonight at the RAC, where ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme says a loss could keep Rutgers out of the NCAA Tournament.</p>

Junior wing Betnijah Laney collected 24 points in Rutgers’ 74-68 win Jan. 25 at Temple. More is at stake tonight at the RAC, where ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme says a loss could keep Rutgers out of the NCAA Tournament.

By simple measures, a 15-point loss Sunday at No. 3 Louisville technically didn’t hurt the Rutgers women’s basketball team’s push for an NCAA Tournament bid.

Despite falling to the Cardinals for a second time this season, the Scarlet Knights (20-6, 11-4) moved up one spot to No. 24 in this week’s AP Poll. LSU and St. John’s both dropped two games last week to fall out of the rankings.

Common sense would tell fans that the AACs third-best team is a virtual lock to receive one of 32 at-large bids to next month’s 64-team NCAA Tournament field.

But according to ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme, Rutgers’ postseason fate is still not safe.

With only the 101st toughest schedule in the country, according to RealTimeRPI.com, the Knights have few impressive wins. They have just one victory against the RPI top 50 and are 6-4 overall against the top 100 this season.

In his most recent mock bracket released Monday, Creme projected Rutgers as a 10-seed in the South Bend region, just ahead of his “Last Four In” — Florida, Minnesota, BYU and Oregon State.

“The record is gaudy and the Scarlet Knights have largely dominated everyone in the American except Louisville and Connecticut. The win over Georgia still carries some weight, as does the 6-4 mark against the top 100,” Creme wrote Monday in an ESPN.com article. “[But] the schedule has not been good at all. The Lady Bulldogs, Princeton and LSU were the only top-150 nonconference opponents Rutgers faced. The Scarlet Knights are also 0-3 against the Cardinals and Huskies, with an average margin of defeat of 18 points.”

It means that Rutgers likely cannot afford an upset loss in its remaining conference games, starting tonight against Temple (12-14, 6-9) at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

Leaving Louisville without a win Sunday may not have hurt Rutgers’ resume, but it did little to validate the Knights’ 20-win season.

Rutgers’ argument for an NCAA bid is predicated on the Knights beating teams they are supposed to beat. With only Temple, No. 1 UConn and South Florida left on the regular season slate, Creme sees that formula as Rutgers’ best chance of getting into the NCAA field.

“An upset of UConn is highly unlikely, but advancing to the American tournament semis and getting another crack at Louisville might help,” Creme wrote Monday. “Rutgers would be extremely vulnerable with any other loss.”

Creme also acknowledged that other teams on the bubble could move ahead of Rutgers with signature wins down the stretch, further highlighting the Knights’ precarious position.

Still, Temple and South Florida both boasting top-100 RPIs works in Rutgers’ favor.

The Knights survived a scare from the Owls on Jan. 25 in Philadelphia, implementing full-court press defense in the second half to pull out a 74-68 win. Sophomore wing Kahleah Copper and junior wing Betnijah Laney led the surge with 44 points and 17 rebounds.

After Sunday’s loss, head coach C. Vivian Stringer stressed she wants better results defensively in the post.

Louisville forwards Asia Taylor and Sara Hammond combined for 37 points and eight offensive rebounds. Last time against Temple, center Taylor Robinson scored 18 points on 8-for-12 field goal shooting.

“Our four and five positions have been killing us,” Stringer told the AP postgame. “The rebounding side has been killing us. We knew what we needed to do. I wish that we would have executed and we didn’t. Hopefully we’ll learn from that.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow Greg Johnson on Twitter @GregJohnsonRU. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.

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