Rutgers looks to stabilize up-and-down season at Northwestern

<p>Junior guard Shrita Parker has increased her scoring average during Big Ten play and will look to lead the Scarlet Knights against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon at the Rutgers Athletic Center.</p>

Junior guard Shrita Parker has increased her scoring average during Big Ten play and will look to lead the Scarlet Knights against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

The Rutgers women’s basketball team is on the heels of one of its best games of the season and despite it being a loss, the Scarlet Knights’ confidence is on the rise.

Rutgers (6-15, 3-5) has seen its ups and downs this season, specifically in Big Ten play. It has upset victories over Penn State and Michigan State, but the team lost by 37 points to 8-12 Illinois and was on the other side of 5-15 Nebraska’s only conference victory.

After wrapping up the first half of conference play on Sunday, the Knights are taking a week off and will kick off the second half of their Big Ten slate on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. against Northwestern.

The Wildcats (15-5, 4-3) are coming off a 26-point loss to Michigan, but have still been one of the best teams in the conference this season, boasting a double-digit win over Michigan State while their only two other losses were to ranked opponents Maryland and Ohio State.

They are led by senior forward Nia Coffey, who is averaging 19.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer will likely rotate her frontcourt players Jordan Wallace, Desiree Keeling and Victoria Harris in order to keep them fresh and out of foul trouble.

The Wildcats also have a prolific point guard in senior Ashley Deary, who is averaging 11.4 points per game while dishing out just under seven assists per game. Stringer should feel confident in defending Deary, as sophomore guard KK Sanders has emerged as the team’s best defender during Big Ten play.

The Knights will also have a new scoring powerhouse as sophomore guard Jazlynd Rollins exploded onto the scene against Maryland, scoring 15 points in the first half alone. Her emergence takes some pressure off of junior guard Shrita Parker, who has been the team's leading scorer this season.

“I feel like that takes the pressure away from anyone who’s scoring. The defense doesn’t have to focus all on (a single player). They have to focus on everything,” Parker said. “They have to focus on the other players that are scoring as well. So that makes the offense easier.”

Speaking of exploding onto the scene, Parker has stepped up her game to a whole new level during Big Ten play. The junior from Virginia Beach, Virginia is averaging over 16 points per contest in conference games this year despite barely cracking double figures during the non-conference portion of Rutgers’ schedule.

The Knights have needed Parker to step up, as she is the most experienced player from last year’s roster and has moved from bench player to the team’s most important scorer.

“Last year my role was a little bit different. It was a little difficult because I didn’t want to feel like I was forcing anything and I wanted to let things flow,” she said. “In the first half of the season I wasn’t really producing offensively. Now since we got into Big Ten I know what the team needs, I know what it’s missing so I've just been trying and willing to step up offensively.”

Rutgers' confidence could be the difference on whether the team wins on Sunday, as the Knights have proven that they can play with any team in the conference. Transfer guard Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is sitting out this season per NCAA transfer rules, has seen the team’s improvement from a different perspective.

“I feel so much more confidence on the floor. Whether it’s in a drill, whether it’s scrimmaging in practice, I feel like everybody is so much more assertive, so much more confident in their decisions,” she said. “I think it’s a huge, huge step from where we were four months ago, two months ago and even last week.”

And if Rutgers find themselves in a hole on Sunday, past games have shown that it won’t be deterred. Parker noted that the team’s will to win is at a different level than it was at the beginning of the season and proving that they can keep it close with one of the best teams in the country helps the team know that no game is out of reach.

“We don’t give up at all,” she said. “No matter what the score is, we’re going to keep fighting.”

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

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