Rivalry gets renewed in NIT Round of 16
The rivalry was thought to be over once the Rutgers women’s basketball team left the old Big East for the AAC, but it turns out the Turnpike Tussle will have another chapter.
Following their win Monday night against Harvard, the Scarlet Knights (24-9) cross paths again with Seton Hall tonight at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in the Round of 16 of the NIT.
With it comes the extra incentive to avenge a bitter 3-point loss last season in South Orange, which snapped Rutgers’ 12-game winning streak in the all-time series and essentially sealed the Knights’ exclusion from the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years.
“Now that they’re coming up, I think we think more about it,” a smiling junior forward Betnijah Laney said Monday of last season’s loss to Seton Hall. “We definitely want to come out and get our revenge, but we’re just looking at it as a game and they’re our opponent for this tournament.”
The Pirates (20-13), coming off a 1-point home win Sunday against Princeton in the second round, likely share the sentiment.
Under first-year head coach Anthony Bozzella, Seton Hall has put together its most wins in 19 seasons and is in a national tournament for the first time in eight years. The Pirates have only once advanced this far in the NIT back in 2004.
Rutgers, meanwhile, accepted an invite to the consolation tournament for the first time under head coach C. Vivian Stringer, who has traditionally settled for no less than the NCAAs.
That mindset changed this season in rebuilding a team of no seniors that Stringer felt the selection committee snubbed of the NCAAs. Despite Rutgers compiling its most wins since making the Elite Eight in 2008, Louisville was the only AAC team to earn an at-large bid to the tournament.
So far the Hall of Fame coach has gotten exactly what she wanted out of the NIT — vital postseason experience.
“With this young group, what we’re trying to do is simulate the exact progression [of the NCAAs],” Stringer said postgame Monday. “You play [the first round], you win the first game, you’ve got 32 [teams]. Now we got to the Sweet 16 and look to go on. So the best thing for us is that we remember how this feels. The pressure and the success and the competition are going to get tougher.”
The Knights, possibly still shaking off rust from an 11-day layoff after the AAC Tournament, now likely need more consistency on the perimeter to advance any farther.
Rutgers shot 34.6 percent overall from the field in the first two rounds of the NIT. AAC Freshman of the Year Tyler Scaife, who has one of the nation’s best pull-up jumpers, has shot 8-for-28 and matched a season-low four points Monday.
Aggressive rebounding and tight defense helped spark offensive spurts at critical junctures against Delaware and Harvard, but Seton Hall’s strong guard play presents a new challenge.
“I know that they’re an outstanding team,” Stringer said. “We had a very difficult time before because they generally run five guards, so we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do about that.”
Guards Ka-Deidre Simmons and Tabatha Richardson-Smith each average nearly 17 points per contest. Bra’Shey Ali, a versatile 6-foot wing player, ranks 17th in the country with 11 rebounds per game. And the Pirates as a whole are peaking with an average of 71.5 points in postseason play.
So Rutgers needs urgency from arguably its most potent offensive threat.
Eleven days between tournaments in some ways disrupted the Knights’ flow, but they afforded sophomore wing Kahleah Copper more time to rest her turf toe injury sustained toward the end of the regular season.
Copper showed more explosiveness Monday, producing game highs of 19 points and 12 rebounds — her most in either department since March 8 against Southern Methodist.
“Rest is always good,” Copper said. “Coach had us get in the ice tub and it was just refreshing. The week off just helped my legs and getting back to moving.”
Rutgers’ first two NIT wins have not been pretty overall, but Stringer was most optimistic about the Knights forcing 20 turnovers and dishing 15 assists.
“I thought that this team played as hard as I’ve seen us play and as hard as was capable,” she said. “Everybody was contributing, and that was good enough to have played at an even higher level. … It was a great team effort with the assists obviously and real hard-nosed defense. I thought that we were focused on every shot.”
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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