Since the loss to No. 5 Maryland on Jan. 15, the No. 22 Rutgers women’s basketball team has rattled off four straight victories.
The Scarlet Knights’ most recent came Sunday afternoon at the RAC, defeating a scrappy Penn State team, 76-65.
Although they may not seem formidable on paper, the Nittany Lions (5-17, 2-9) were able to give the Knights all they could handle Sunday afternoon.
At the onset of the contest, it appeared as though Rutgers would be able to coast to another win. The Knights (16-5, 7-3) played their traditional “55” full court press defense on the Nittany Lions in the first half. They forced eight turnovers and went into halftime with a 37-28 lead.
But the second half was a back-and-forth affair.
The Nittany Lions opened the second-half with a 15-5 run and managed to take a 43-42 lead on the Knights with 12:11 left to play.
Rutgers initially struggled from the field in the second half, shooting just 2-of-16 while Penn State eventually stole the lead.
But then Kahleah Copper came to play.
The junior wing took over the game, scoring 14 points in the last 9 minutes of the game to push the Knights to victory.
Copper was aggressive and displayed her complete offensive array, driving to the lane, making acrobatic layups and drawing fouls, while also knocking down key jump shots.
One of her biggest plays came in the final minutes of the game. Copper drove to the lane, absorbed contact and laid it in for the three-point play to put Rutgers up 62-54 with 5:45 left.
“I just had that sense of urgency, I wanted to win,” Copper said. “I was trying to do whatever possible to get the win. I’ve been working hard on the things I’ve been doing, so I was just taking the shots I could normally take.”
In total, Copper finished the contest with 25 points to go along with four rebounds and one assist. Sophomore guard Tyler Scaife collected 21 points, five rebounds and six assists, while senior forward Betnijah Laney posted her sixth double-double in Big Ten play with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Six Knights scored in the matchup, including 14 bench points.
Two of those players included senior center Christa Evans and junior guard Cynthia Hernandez, who played critical minutes to adjust to Penn State’s lineup.
In a matchup that featured six players over 6-foot-3 on Penn State, head coach C. Vivian Stringer knew she had to change her lineup to combat the size advantage of the Nittany Lions.
“Penn State is the biggest team we’ve played, and probably the biggest team we will play,” Stringer said. “I think it was really encouraging for us to have [Evans] play the way she did. The fact that she demonstrated she could play with Penn State’s taller players was key for us.”
With 76 points on the game, Rutgers reached the 70-point mark for the 11th time this season despite shooting only 38.8 percent from the field and committing 11 turnovers.
As Scaife said, the Knights had a certain “swagger” to them in this contest.
“I think we played with a lot of intensity, toughness — and I felt like we had little swagger to us today, and that helped with the way we played too with making shots and encouraging each other,” she said.
Despite being challenged deep into the second-half by the one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, Stringer was happy about what a win like this will teach her team going forward. She also knows what kind of identity the Knights are building with every close win they earn as conference play hits its apex.
“When we tend to get our backs against the wall, we come back,” Stringer said. “We have been a team that has been resilient, and it was major today.”
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