Rutgers uses late game push to defeat Nebraska, advance to Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals
The Rutgers women’s basketball team looked set to avoid the struggles it faced in the last time it played against Nebraska.
The tenth-seeded Scarlet Knights stormed out of the gates against the seventh-seeded Cornhuskers in their Big Ten Tournament second round matchup, closing the first quarter on a 13-0 run to take a 22-9 lead into the second quarter.
It appeared head coach C. Vivian Stringer would be spared of scolding her team’s play to wake them up, as was the case in the Knights’ 66-56 win over Nebraska when the teams met Jan. 30 in Piscataway.
But when the halftime horn sounded and Stringer walked to her interview with the Big Ten Network’s Shelley Till prior to heading to the locker room, the game had been flipped on its head.
The Huskers shot 67 percent in the second quarter to outscore Rutgers 24-12, reducing a 14-point deficit to just one as it trailed 34-33 heading into the half.
“I thought (Nebraska) did a great job (in the second quarter). We just were slow. Very late in handling the screens and getting out to the shooter," Stringer told Till. "I’m upset. That’s going to change in the second half, trust me when I tell you that.”
The earful the Knights heard at the half didn’t register immediately, but when it did, it made the difference.
After Rutgers scored 4 of the first 6 points of the second half, Nebraska went on a 10-2 run to take its first lead at 39-38 with 6:09 remaining in the third quarter. The Cornhuskers pushed the lead to as much as eight, 58-50, with 7:22 remaining in the contest.
Then the Knights kicked it into gear.
Rutgers (18-13, 9-10) outscored their opponent 16-5 in the final seven minutes of the game en route to defeating Nebraska (18-12, 9-10) 66-63 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
After dropping numerous games this season by not finishing down the stretch, winning the biggest game of the season with a ferocious comeback at the death was satisfying for the Knights.
“The vast majority of this year, we've been losing the game in the fourth quarter,” a happier Stringer told Till after the final horn. “We tightened up ... and executed better.”
Stringer later expanded on her comment in her opening statement at the postgame press conference.
"I was extremely proud of our team mainly because we've had problems in the fourth quarter, but in this case, we didn't blink," she said. "It was a great team effort, we hung in there until the last second ... it was a very rewarding and exciting win."
The win was iced by two free throws from Shrita Parker.
The sophomore guard led the Knights with 18 points off the bench, including 7 of the Knights' final 16 points.
"It feels great (to come in clutch for the team)," Parker said. "I always prepare myself for these type of situations, but it felt amazing. One of the best feelings in the world."
While Parker ignited the comeback with a 3-pointer, senior forward Kahleah Copper led the final charge.
The Second Team All-Big Ten selection, who started the game with a protective mask after injuring her nose in practice before taking it off halfway through the second quarter, scored 6 of her 17 points in the final six minutes.
“The possession before (I took the mask off), it was a rebound that I missed, and I knew I could've had," Copper said. "So I knew I had to take the mask off and had to start getting busy."
The shot that gave the Huskers their first lead at 39-38 was a trey from Natalie Romeo, who led all scorers with 23 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including a 70 percent clip from beyond the arc (7-for-10). The sophomore guard played all 40 minutes for Nebraska.
After two quarters of loose defense, the Knights buckled down and held Nebraska to just 13 points in the final quarter.
Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jessica Shepard, who was averaging 22.5 points in her two games against Rutgers this season, was held to just 4 points by senior center Rachel Hollivay.
The program's all-time career leader in blocks swatted just one shot, but was fundamental in the Knights win on the glass.
"Most of you are used to seeing is a lot of blocked shots from Rachel," Stringer said. "She didn't have the blocked shots, but she had 10 rebounds and that's what we asked her to do."
The win guarantees the Knights another day in their 2015-2016 campaign. They will face No. 2 seed Ohio State Friday as they continue to build their case for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
But the national tournament can wait. Rutgers has business to take care of in conference.
The Buckeyes defeated the Knights by an average of 18 points in two contests this season, but Stringer isn't worried about the challenge — she's relishing it.
"I think (tonight) is the experience that we needed and we're hopefully able to transfer that experience to the situation we're gonna have tomorrow," Stringer said. "I do believe with all my heart that if we play our best game ... we've got just as good a chance as Ohio State does in winning."
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