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Crucial loss puts Knights in bad spot

Sophomore wing Kahleah Copper, junior wing Betnijah Laney and junior guard Syessence Davis stared listlessly from the Louis Brown Athletic Center’s postgame podium Monday night, and no one could blame them.

Since the start of conference play 65 days earlier, the Rutgers women’s basketball team consistently placed at least third in the AAC. The Scarlet Knights had paved a realistic path to the AAC title game, and an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament was all but a formality.

That was until South Florida arrived at the RAC.

With one demoralizing 60-51 loss to the Bulls (18-11, 13-5) in its regular-season finale, No. 24 Rutgers slipped to fourth in the league, and the Knights’ (21-8, 12-6) stability vanished.

ESPN Bracketologist Charlie Creme wrote last Monday that Rutgers would be “extremely vulnerable” to falling out of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field with another upset loss — USF included.

Projected as an 8-seed in Creme’s latest mock bracket — which did not include USF — before the defeat, Rutgers now could be on on the bubble for selection to the tournament.

Perhaps the worst part for the Knights is that they can do little to control their destiny at this point.

With the 4-seed, Rutgers still has a bye to the second round of the AACs. But beyond a win against mediocre 5-seed Southern Methodist on Saturday, the Knights are highly likely to fall again to No. 1 UConn on Sunday in the semifinals.

“We still have to go out and do what we’re supposed to do,” said Laney, a team captain. “It hurts us because it’s not the easiest way.”

After Rutgers suffered a second blowout to the undefeated Huskies last Saturday in Storrs, Conn., head coach C. Vivian Stringer said it would be just short of a “darn miracle” if a team upset UConn this season.

She then acknowledged Monday night that the Knights, who were held to less than 60 points for just the fifth time this season, could have suffered a hangover from the 72-35 rout in Storrs.

“I think a team like Connecticut is capable of electrocuting you to the point you have a hangover for a long time,” Stringer said. “I thought that we played tentatively [against USF].”

Rutgers, which missed its first six shots from the field, fell behind, 9-0, to the Bulls before finally sinking a basket with 14:06 to play in the first half. The Knights fought back within one possession a few times, but USF continued to respond and led wire-to-wire.

In some ways, Rutgers simply looked gassed.

It was the first time the team played a third game in six days since its sixth game of the season Nov. 22 against non-conference foe Howard.

But the Knights, who have come out to slow starts at home numerous times before, insisted fatigue did not play a factor.

“We practice every day. We come to play every day,” said Davis, who had a team-high 12 points and helped Rutgers claw back into the game on the defensive end. “We just came out to a slow start, which kind of gave us a disadvantage.”

Another detriment to Rutgers was the fact that Copper, its leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, was at less than 100 percent coming off a turf toe injury suffered last Monday against Temple.

After missing the UConn game, the Philadelphia native shot just 2-for-11 from the field and tallied 7 points.

“I felt out of sync,” Copper said. “[My toe] hurts every time I walk.”

It is unknown at this point how healthy Copper will be after nearly five days of rest for Saturday’s AAC Tournament second-round game.

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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