Second-round game presents last chance to bolster resume

<p>Head coach C. Vivian Stringer said she would feel more certain about Rutgers’ chances of making the NCAAs with an impressive win Saturday against SMU.</p>

Head coach C. Vivian Stringer said she would feel more certain about Rutgers’ chances of making the NCAAs with an impressive win Saturday against SMU.

On the eve of the AAC Tournament, head coach C. Vivian Stringer still does not have a clear sense of if this could be it for the Rutgers women’s basketball team.

The No. 24 Scarlet Knights (21-8, 12-6) were long seen as a safe bet for an at-large bid to the NCAAs, but after slipping to fourth in the AAC with a loss Monday night to South Florida, their fate is uncertain.

“I wish I knew,” Stringer said yesterday post-practice of whether one win in the AACs will be enough to make the NCAAs. “I could tell you that had we taken care of USF and taken care of this, I think I would be certain that that would be the case. But what I do know is we have a game at 12 o’clock, which means we’ve got to get up at 6 [a.m.].”

Likely Rutgers’ last chance to impress the NCAA Selection Committee comes tomorrow in the second round of the AAC Tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena.

After earning a bye from Friday’s first round, 4-seed Rutgers draws 5-seed Southern Methodist (17-12, 8-10) in Uncasville, Conn. The winner is almost certain to bow out in the semifinals against No. 1 UConn.

The Knights swept their season series with the Mustangs — Jan. 11 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center and Feb. 8 in Dallas. But both games were competitive, with Rutgers having to overcome a 9-point deficit with 3:25 left to steal the second meeting.

And if they do not reestablish offensive fluidity Saturday, the Knights will be susceptible to dropping their third straight game.

Rutgers, which averages 66.7 points per contest, is coming off its two worst offensive outings of the season. The Knights tallied a season-low 35 points Saturday at UConn, then failed to score until the 14:06 mark of the first half Monday en route to merely 51 points in the loss to USF.

With sophomore wing and leading scorer Kahleah Copper recovering from turf toe suffered Feb. 26, the Knights have been out of rhythm and stagnant moving without the ball.

Copper missed the UConn game but returned Monday to score just 7 points with no assists and four turnovers.

After complaining postgame of her toe hurting whenever she walks, Copper said yesterday she feels healthy entering the conference tournament.

“We definitely need Kahleah. She’s a huge part of what we do,” said freshman guard Tyler Scaife. “But we’ve all got to do a better job of just finishing. These last few games we’ve missed a lot of easy shots — layups, wide-open shots.”

Defensively Rutgers must do a better of rotating out on shooters.

UConn guard Bria Hartley and USF guard Courtney Williams respectively dropped 20 and 26 points most recently on the Knights’ 2-3 zone.

The task does not get any easier against SMU and the conference’s top scorer in guard Keena Mays, who averages 20.8 points per game, shooting an AAC-best 38 percent from beyond the arc.

“We’ve got to contain Mays, just don’t let her get too much,” Scaife said. “She’s going to get her shots, but we just want to make it a little harder for her.”

With virtually no margin for error at this point, the Knights know they might need a convincing win against SMU to ensure selection to the NCAA Tournament.

Stringer has lamented the smaller mistakes under pressure in critical games that could spoil an otherwise impressive fourth-month stretch. The Hall of Fame coach said she understands that those experiences are part of the rebuilding process with a roster of no seniors.

But getting a taste of the NCAAs after falling short last season is also a part of that.

“I’ve never seen a team just go from ground zero to Elite Eight [of the NCAAs]. Generally, it’s a gradual process,” Stringer said. “I would like very much for us to get there and give this group a chance. They truly deserve it.”

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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