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Senior wing hopes to shine for Rutgers in final season on Banks

<p>Senior wing Kahleah Copper looks to push her game to new heights this year after posting a team-leading 16.3 points per game in her junior season.</p>

Senior wing Kahleah Copper looks to push her game to new heights this year after posting a team-leading 16.3 points per game in her junior season.

She was not the first option last year. 

That distinction was held by the eventual No. 17 overall pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft, then-senior wing Betnijah Laney, despite not being the leading scorer for the Rutgers women's basketball team. 

She didn't run the point either. 

Those duties were handled by teammates Tyler Scaife, Syessence Davis and Briyona Canty. 

But this season, senior wing Kahleah Copper is ready to take her game to the next level.

Copper earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors last season after leading the team with 16.3 points per game and pulling down 5.1 rebounds per contest. The Philadelphia native posted 11 performances of 20 points or more over the course of her third year on the Banks, which is even more impressive when considering the offense largely ran through Laney and Scaife.

Copper wasn't a threat from the perimeter either. She fired only two attempts from 3-point land in her junior year, missing the mark on both occasions.

But everywhere in between, Copper was the dominant currency.

The senior showed the ability to create her own shot — be it off the dribble, the pass or the rebound —and Copper cut through defenses last season in transition, flying down the court before taking off toward the hoop. Her athleticism reminds basketball fans of former NBA great Stacey Augmon, with her ability to twist and turn in mid-air, while maintaining the body control needed to finish the play.

Copper doesn't play above the rim like Augmon, but she still possesses the skill set to turn heads with acrobatics around the bucket. 

What's even more dangerous for Rutgers’ opponents this year? The 6-foot-1 wing has been working on her 3-point shot.

"We're going to shoot the 3-ball a lot better this year,” Copper said. “We've worked a lot on that over the summer. There will be more scoring in that area."

Copper is not alone in her efforts to improve her game from beyond the arc. 

Scaife, a junior guard, has also intimated the focus on her perimeter shot throughout the offseason after scoring 14.8 points per game last year as a sophomore.

“I’m been in the weight room more,” Scaife said. “I keep working on my 3-point ball, just my all-around game, really. Definitely (the perimeter shots) are something I've been working on.”

It would be an injustice to discuss this topic without mentioning Rutgers’ senior sharp-shooter Cynthia Hernandez. 

The Ventura College (California) transfer converted 42 percent of her 3-point attempts in her first season on the Banks, but saw limited time due to the other scoring options in the starting lineup. She feels this season will be different.

“I think this season I’ll contribute way more,” Hernandez said. “I'm focusing on the defensive end so I can stay in longer. I think I'm just, all-around, getting better.”

Scoring was not an issue for the Knights or Copper in her junior season. Rutgers registered 68.7 points per game in their first season in the Big Ten, notching the second-highest scoring average in the Hall-of-Fame career of head coach C. Vivian Stringer. 

But even with the accomplishment of that feat for a coach entering her 21st season in Piscataway, the Knights finished in the middle of the pack in the conference's scoring ranks a year ago. Stringer sees year two as a chance to get better.

“We’re good. We’re learning and we’ll be fine,” Stringer said. “I have to calm myself down sometimes because this time of year, I'm really anxious. I wanna get it done yesterday.”

Luckily for Stringer and her team, yesterday is tomorrow. Rutgers will travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to the city Copper calls home. 

The Knights head to Philly to take on St. Joseph’s for the season opener and one can expect Rutgers to rely on their leading scorer from last season to provide a spark in her homecoming. 

Copper has set her sights even higher for her senior season, saying anything less than a significant improvement would be a step back in her progression as a player.

"I think I've gotten better every year with scoring,” she said. “So I don't want to back track and I want to continue getting better, and I think shooting the 3-ball will definitely help me and the team."

For updates on the Rutgers women's basketball team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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