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Senior sharpens focus for final year of career at Rutgers

Senior center Rachel Hollivay is averaging 8.9 points and 8.9 rebounds since posting 14 points and 12 boards against Minnesota Dec. 31. Hollivay leads the Big Ten in blocks with 57. – Photo by Photo by Achint Raince | The Daily Targum

Before the season began, Rachel Hollivay promised she would be an improved player in 2015-2016. 

The 6-foot-4 senior said she was determined to be more aggressive and poised to show progress on the offensive end of the floor after averaging 6.7 points per game in her junior year.

“Being more aggressive, playing smarter defense, taking my time on offense and getting my shot better so I can be hard to guard.”

Those were keys Hollivay talked about with The Daily Targum at the Rutgers women's basketball team’s Media Day on Oct. 27.

“I work on it like every single day, different things,” she said. “So I’m excited to see what I can do this year.”

The fact that she is even playing basketball could be called a miracle.

In 2009, while still in high school, Hollivay suffered severe injuries after speed and poor road conditions caused her Toyota Camry to flip multiple times on a Mississippi road, first spinning like a top before tumbling into a tree.

She was lucky to be alive, but the damage was significant.

Hollivay was showered with shattered glass after her car was thrown about like a rag doll. Much of the broken shards lodged themselves in her arms and legs, but the worst of the damage was to her left eye.'s Lindsay Schnell chronicled Hollivay's account in a 2010 article, where the then-high school senior and No. 3 recruit in the 2012 class said the doctors told her the eye was "filleted" and the possibility that she would regain sight in that eye was slim.

After several surgeries, Hollivay's vision was restored, but not completely. She estimated it was at about 65 percent of her right eye, enough to get back on the floor. 

So she did, but not without difficulty.

"Sometimes, I'm cross-eyed," she told Schnell. "And I can't help it."

Continued rehab and practice allowed Hollivay to adjust and nearly seven years later, she stands as the starting center for the Scarlet Knights (12-7, 3-4).

Through 21 games in her final season on the Banks, Hollivay has shown an uptick in her progression.

After averaging 6.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in her junior season, the Columbus, Mississippi, native is up to 6.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest.

But the most marked improvement has come on the defensive end.

Hollivay leads the Big Ten Conference in blocked shots (57) and blocks per game (3.0), coming off a six-block performance in the Knights most recent contest, a loss at No. 21 Michigan State on Tuesday night.

It was the fourth time the senior center swatted away six shots this season, after yielding only one such performance a year ago.

The increase in her offensive production spiked on New Year's Eve at the Rutgers Athletic Center against Minnesota.

Thanks to some extra attention from the coaching staff over the holiday break, Hollivay looked like a polished low-post player, spinning from her defender to drop baby hooks, facing up for mid-range jumpers and showing a sultry drop-step to get to the rim.

Hollivay scored 14 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and batted away six shots in the 66-55 win for Rutgers in the conference opener.

Afterward, she was asked if it was the best game the center had ever played at Rutgers.

Hollivay’s attempt to answer was halted by a teammate.

“Yes,” interrupted junior guard Tyler Scaife. “And we need that everyday.” 

Then senior wing Kahleah Copper echoed emphatically “Everyday.”

Eventually, after a couple chuckles, Hollivay cleared her throat to answer.

She pointed to the break as an opportunity to soak up knowledge from head coach C. Vivian Stringer. An opportunity the senior seized.

“You know, Coach Stringer, she’s been trying to teach me this one move that I couldn’t get, but I finally got it,” Hollivay said. “It’s like the spin move or the face-up and drop-step and stuff. She’s been teaching me that so I’ve been working on it.”

Since the win over Minnesota, Hollivay is averaging 8.9 points and 8.9 boards per game. And had it not been for a couple less than stellar performances against MSU and Nebraska, where she was held scoreless, the averages might be closer to double figures.

With 11 games left on the schedule, the time is now for Hollivay’s progression to bear fruit. 

Rutgers approaches the stretch run in need of eight victories to notch the 20-win marker that is so often a make-or-break measure for determining a team’s worthiness of an NCAA Tournament berth. 

Stringer knows that in order to achieve that goal, there’s no time like the present. And for Hollivay, there is no escaping that.

“We need to be serious about what we know and how we’re executing it. Because for the seniors, they have one shot and that’s it. The other players — the freshman — do have years left, but the future is not always what you think the future is now.”

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

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