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Rutgers' comeback falls short to Iowa in Big Ten Semifinals

 – Photo by Dustin Niles

An exciting weekend for the Rutgers women’s basketball team came to a disappointing finish, but the glass still very well could be half-full.

The No. 3 Scarlet Knights (22-9, 13-5) defeated No. 11 Purdue 64-49 on Friday night in the Quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

It was a game in which Rutgers held a 42-41 lead with seconds remaining in the third quarter. That is when true freshman guard Noga Peleg Pelc landed a gut punch to the Boilermakers (19-15, 8-10), one they would never recover from.

Pelc banked in a 3-pointer from near the right corner as time expired in the third quarter to give the Knights a 45-41 lead, and they took Purdue to the woodshed after that.

Rutgers went on a 14-1 run, capped off by a long 3-pointer from graduate student guard Charise Wilson to put the game away.

“The three that (Wilson) hit was huge," said acting head coach Tim Eatman. "I thought every time they made a run at us, we had someone step up and make a play, and it wasn't the same person every time."

The duo of fifth-year senior forward Stasha Carey and sophomore guard Arella Guirantes combined to shoot 11- 23 from the field and score 32 points. The Knights also made the Boilermakers' best player, Karissa McLaughlin, not much of a factor. She shot 3-12 from the field for 11 points and had just two assists.  

Saturday night did not bring as good of news for Rutgers. It faced off against No. 2 Iowa, who the team lost to 72-66 on Jan. 23 in Iowa City, Iowa. On Friday, the Hawkeyes' (25-6, 14-4) Megan Gustafson was named the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year.  

The 6-foot-3-inch senior was not even off to her best start on Saturday night, but the Knights found themselves in trouble early.

Even with Gustafson starting 1-7 from the field, other members of Iowa really had it going and the Hawkeyes eventually jumped out to a 51-31 lead. A huge part in Rutgers getting off to a slow start was senior center Victoria Harris, who picked up two early fouls and eventually had four fouls in 6 minutes played at one point in the game.

Carey was really the only one who had it going early for the Knights, and as a result of Harris’s foul trouble, she knew she would be seeing Gustafson on the defensive end quite a bit.

“I knew that I had a lot on my shoulders, but I had a lot of trust in my teammates coming off the bench,” Carey said. “Jordan Wallace coming in giving great minutes, Tekia Mack coming in giving great minutes. I knew they had my back through it.”

Gustafson led her team in scoring with 20 points on 9-18 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Rutgers roared back, cutting it to a 65-62 game with 2 minutes remaining.

“I think I didn't realize that they were pretty much face-guarding me. I think they played as a triangle-and-two in the first half at some point," Guirantes said. "But, I think what got me going was when (Wilson) came in and she's just like, run, just run."

Guirantes finished with 16 points on 5-10 from the field, as well as making all 6 free throws from the foul line.

The comeback proved to be too little, too late as the Knights fell 72-67. 

Rutgers is going to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Selections are not until next week, so the team will be waiting for them to occur. The Knights are not expected to be a top-four seed in the tournament, so they likely will be making travel plans come next Monday.

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

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