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Rutgers bench players provide spark in recent hot stretch

<p>Junior guard Cynthia Hernandez has been a catalyst for Rutgers off the bench, highlighted by a season-high 17 points at Wisconsin.</p>

Junior guard Cynthia Hernandez has been a catalyst for Rutgers off the bench, highlighted by a season-high 17 points at Wisconsin.

As Big Ten Conference play reaches its peak, the No. 21 Rutgers women’s basketball team has hit its stride at the right time.

By winning six of their last seven contests, the Scarlet Knights (16-5, 7-3) have displayed talent and potential as the regular season winds down.

According to players and coaching staff, the biggest key to the recent success has not been the play of stalwarts such as sophomore guard Tyler Scaife or senior forward Betnijah Laney — it has been the bench.

The Knights have a number of rotational players who have stepped up in critical ways during recent contests.

Rutgers has averaged 16.9 points per contest off the bench in the past seven games. In the seven games prior to that, the Knights were only getting an average of 10 points from their bench.

The ability of more players to come in and make an impact has given the starters on the court a major boost. In their game against Penn State, Rutgers collected 14 important points off the bench.

Junior guard Cynthia Hernandez led the bench brigade, knocking down two critical three pointers in the win.

Hernandez has been one of many role players who have come on strong lately for the Knights, as the sharpshooter registered a season-high 17 points against Wisconsin on Jan. 25.

“Cynthia has come in several times in the past few games, and we try telling her she doesn’t have to shoot the first thing that’s there, but when it’s good, it is important the team knows she is on the floor,” said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. “We were looking for her to knock down threes, and it was good to see her take the threes as she did.”

Rutgers posted its season-high in bench points in its contest against the Badgers, posting 34 points from backups.

Other players have executed their roles on the team at an impressive level during this win streak as well, including junior center Ariel Butts and senior center Christa Evans.

Both Butts and Evans have seen increased minutes recently to keep starting center Rachel Hollivay out of foul trouble. Each center complements the other greatly, and it has shown in recent games.

Butts has averaged 3.6 rebounds this season, while Evans is second on the team in blocks with 15.

Evans has seen her role increase lately, having started the past two games and matched up with the top centers in the Big Ten.

Both played critical roles against a tall Penn State team, and performed as well as their head coach could have asked.

“We are just embracing this opportunity and appreciating the process, because there will bigger and quicker teams. But we have to play anyway — it’s given to us, so it’s good to see the development of the people on the bench,” Stringer said.

As for the starting five, they welcome the influx of energy and talent that has been coming off the bench recently.

The role players have been able to work in cohesion with the major players in the past seven games, and the offense has become more dangerous as a result.

“They didn’t really know who to guard, because at any point I could go off, Kahleah could go off or Betnijah could go off,” Scaife said. “Whoever’s hot at the moment, that’s who we feed. And once they slow them down we give it to someone else, which is a good option to have.”

Rutgers will continue to rely on its bench to do the little things that make a large impact moving forward.

With conference play at its height, its importance to the team right now could not be greater.

“If we each take that mindset of doing the team things, like rebounding and great team defense, it all works together for the good of the team,” Stringer said. “It’s not about which team has the greatest collection of players, it’s about the ability of everybody to play together and play as one, that is a force to be reckoned with.”

For more updates on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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