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Rutgers opens Big Ten Tournament play with third contest against Nebraska

<p>Senior center Rachel Hollivay will be tasked with guarding Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jessica&nbsp;Shepard in No.10 seed&nbsp;Rutgers' second-round Big Ten Tournament matchup against No. 7 seed Nebraska.</p>

Senior center Rachel Hollivay will be tasked with guarding Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jessica Shepard in No.10 seed Rutgers' second-round Big Ten Tournament matchup against No. 7 seed Nebraska.

After 29 games of virtual mediocrity, the Rutgers women’s basketball team saved its most complete performance of the year for Game No. 30.

In the regular season finale, the Scarlet Knights (17-13, 8-10) put on a dominant display, pummeling Michigan, 72-50, on Sunday at the Rutgers Athletic Center, demonstrating that perhaps the Knights are hitting their stride at the perfect time.

But the uptick in production has stretched well-beyond the declawing of the Wolverines, head coach C. Vivian Stringer said.

“In the last week and a half, two weeks, I've been impacted by the people who have put together another level,” Stringer said on the Weekly Big Ten Coaches Teleconference Monday. “Our team is responding better, so we’re confident, happy, hopeful, going into the Big Ten (Tournament).”

No. 10 seed Rutgers will attempt to carry the positive momentum into Big Ten Tournament play, beginning with No. 7 seed Nebraska (18-11, 9-9) Thursday in Indianapolis in a second-round matchup.

The two schools split their two games in 2015-16, with each winning on their home floor. 

The Cornhuskers won by 11 points in Lincoln Jan. 16 and the Knights earned a 10-point win at the RAC exactly two weeks later.

“Both games were typical ‘Rutgers games’ in that they were low-scoring games,” said Huskers' head coach Connie Yori on the conference call. “Rutgers is a very good defensive team ... Just like every team, they're capable of beating any team in this league, and that's been what we’ve seen throughout this regular season.”

Aside from the venue, another difference in the two matchups was the health of Nebraska guard Rachel Theriot.

The 6-footer poured in 17 points and dished seven assists in the first meeting, helping the Cornhuskers make a fourth-quarter charge, outscoring Rutgers 24-11 in the final frame, ultimately cruising to a 65-54 win.

But Theriot did not play the second time around.

Yori refused to discuss Theriot's absence in detail, but she did say the senior has been out with an undisclosed injury, which was surgically repaired on Monday.

As is their sworn identity, defense will likely make the difference for the Knights in round three, an area where Stringer thinks her team can still improve despite finishing first in the conference in scoring defense (59.1 points per game) and blocks (164) and second in field goal percentage (37.7 percent).

“We’re relatively high in the Big Ten on the defensive side, but we can be far better and I thought that we began to show that,” the Hall of Fame head coach said.

Senior center Rachel Hollivay will be asked for a third time to try and contain Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jessica Shepard on the low block.

The first two times the centers were pit against one another, Shepard had her way, posting a pair of 22-point performances and adding an average of six rebounds.

But in order to defend, Hollivay and company will need to stay on the floor, a prospect that has been easier said than done for a Rutgers squad that also leads the Big Ten in fouls in 2015-16.

It goes beyond just the Hollivay/Shepard matchup, Stringer said. It extends to the Knights necessity to stop the ball in transition, crash the boards and press on players on the perimeter.

“As with all teams,” she said. “There are certain things that need to get done no matter who you play, and they tend to be issues that we’ve had in our games. One, defense in transition and that we rebound, get out to the shooters (on the perimeter) quicker and stop fouling.”

These are the times when senior leadership is supposed to persevere. No one is more cognizant of that fact than senior point guard Briyona Canty.

Although Canty has not been one of the top scorers on the squad, her ability to fill the box score consistently has allowed Rutgers to supplement all facets, both offensively and defensively.

Against Michigan, she posted 9 points, two rebounds, six assists and four blocks.

Canty stressed disappointment in her team’s lack of consistency throughout the season, but in an exclusive interview with The Daily Targum Feb. 24, she expressed confidence that the Knights are due for a run.

And furthermore, they owe it to their coach and fans, she said.

“We have more to offer than we have been giving. I think the fans, they deserve (to see us in the NCAA Tournament) because they have been faithful to us,” Canty said. “I think everybody on this team really deserves it. Especially the seniors. And I think we owe it to Coach Stringer. But it’s up to us. We have to set the tone and start it.”

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

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