Change is brewing within the Rutgers women’s basketball team, evidenced in each of the last two games. The Scarlet Knights (18-13, 9-10) have flipped the narrative from a team that struggles to produce offensively beyond two players and is incapable of closing the door in crunch time, to a balanced offense that can dig deep in the fourth quarter to pull out wins.
After embarrassing Michigan at the Rutgers Athletic Center in the season finale, the most recent indication of the climactic change came in the comeback win over Nebraska Thursday in the second round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
Trailing 58-50 with the Knights with 7:22 left on the game clock, Rutgers refused to pack it in.
Instead the Knights went on a 7-0 run to get the within one with just over five minutes remaining.
After the Cornhuskers pushed the lead to 63-60, sophomore guard Shrita Parker scored a layup to put Rutgers back within one at the 1:40 mark.
Head coach C. Vivian Stringer assembled the team for a quick huddle, reminiscent of the last time Rutgers met the Huskers.
Senior wing Kahleah Copper shared Stringer’s message with the Big Ten Network’s Taylor Rooks postgame.
“She was just telling us to keep up our intensity,” Copper said. “Just to stay focused between everything and don’t let nothin’ slip, and just stay together.”
The Knights forced a turnover and junior guard Tyler Scaife gave her team a 64-63 lead with a jumper with 1:12 to go, before Parker sank two free throws to ice it in the closing seconds.
Parker finished with a career-high 18 points, to go with Copper’s 17 points and 10 from Scaife.
“That’s major. We haven’t been able to win when we just got two (players in double digits) and everybody else in single digits.” Stringer told BTN’s Shelley Till courtside. “But what’s most important: we rebound, we play great defense, because that was the name of the game.”
Now Rutgers must be reliant on those fundamentals as the excitement of the win over Nebraska has been tempered by the harsh reality of tonight's matchup with the nation’s No. 5 program, Ohio State (23-6, 15-3).
In a somewhat suprising third installment, the Big Ten's top offense (OSU) will be pitted against the conference's best defensive unit (RU).
The Buckeyes swept the two regular season games between the schools, winning by 12 in the first meeting before a spirited effort from the Knights fell short at the RAC as OSU prevailed by 9.
The recipe for a Rutgers victory in round three?
“We’re just gonna have to make sure we have our legs under us because they are gonna run, run, run, shoot some more, and run,” Stringer told Till. “So, we’ve gotta move our feet and play a much better game on defense.”
After a pair of overtime losses to close the season cost Ohio State the tournament’s No. 1 seed, head coach Kevin McGuff was not discouraged, calling the event “a great opportunity.”
“It's going to be a competitive tournament,” McGuff said, according to The Lantern’s Bathan Rubenstein. “We had a tough week last week, but we control our destiny.”
Kelsey Mitchell and Ameryst Alston allow the Buckeyes to maintain that control.
Mitchell is second in the Big Ten in scoring dropping 24.3 points per game and Alston stands seventh in the league with 19.5 per.
In the two previous matchups with the team from the Banks the pair averaged 26.5 and 18 points per game respectively.
But that was before back-to-back losses soured the achievements of the season.
Now Mitchell is just trying to guide her team back on track.
“It's just one of those things where we just have to turn the page,” Mitchell told the Lantern. “We have to get back to the way things were.”
In order to stop them from returning to prior glory, Rutgers will need to press Mitchell and Alston on the perimeter.
The Knights allowed the Huskers to convert 64 percent of their attempts from 3-point range Thursday, a stat that had Stringer steaming at halftime.
“We really weren’t coming out on the shooters,” she said. “(We were) leaving our feet and they were attacking and getting the drives.”
If the Knights are able to sneak past the Buckeyes they just might have a shot at an improbable run to the conference tournament crown.
One thing is certain, though, the team that will take the floor tonight against Ohio State tonight will not be lacking confidence.
“I just think that we gotta come out and just play hard,” Copper told Rooks. “We’re capable of doing anything and I think that if we come out and play together and we just play hard, I think anything is possible.”
For updates on the Rutgers women's basketball team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.