Guru's College Report: Rutgers Talent Influx Reducing Stringer's Frantic Level
By Mel Greenberg
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Maybe it’s conversations with other prominent coaches, some of which Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer alluded to, about the scene among teams in today’s environment.
But after several seasons of struggle that still managed to result in final, if not happy, chapters that still included appearances in the NCAA tournament, the promise of what can be has resulted in Stringer altering habits that media members have used for tea leaves as to where her thought processes might be at a given moment.
Considering a long winning streak that should be breaking out will eliminate concern through January about whether Rutgers will make the NCAA field minimally as an at-large entry.
It’s almost the end of December and the tactic of taking away locker room privileges from her 11th-ranked Scarlet Knights because of poor performances has been a penalty kept in cold storage.
The process of finding the exact formula for success in blending one of the better group of freshmen in Scarlet Knights history with the elder stateswomen on the team in the likes of April Sykes and Khadijah Rushdan continues to be a work in progress.
No, there’s no disappointment with Monique Oliver who was not in the fold when Stringer produced her sixth different starting lineup Sunday afternoon prior to hosting Iona in a nonconference game at the Rutgers Athletic Center that came at the end of a week that included a competitive home loss to Tennessee and for the players the annual drudgery of final exams before the holiday break.
She said she’s still looking everyone over to find the right mix for the opening minutes with an eye to the rugged run in the Big East that’s just over the horizon when 2012 arrives on the calendar.
So to some it was a bit of surprise in the atmosphere following a 62-29 win by Rutgers (10-2), which held the Gaels (4-6) of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to just four points in the second half.
It’s not true that three northbound New Jersey Transit trains heading for New York passed through the nearby New Brunswick between Iona field goals – the Gales shot 2-for-21 in the final 20 minutes – it just seemed that way.
But despite the final tally, which most of the nation beyond here would conclude as business as usual in light of the talent and athletic superiority of the home team, until the freshmen helped the Scarlet Knights power away by a large enough lead to enable walk-ons Brittany Lapidus and Jaymee Tucker see action at the finish to each score career-highs of three points, they did not resemble the team that extended the Lady Vols most of the way on Tuesday night.
Thus the thinking from many of the regulars covering Rutgers these days that Stringer was going to be on the long end of time between end of game and press conference appearance and when she got there she was not going to be in the holiday spirit, neither assumption became reality.
At this point, even the Hall of Famer off a long distinguished career knows the perils any kind of contest this particular time of year might offer and she appeared to take it in stride though she expressed she had hopes things might be different.
“That’s interesting and a good choice of words,” Stringer responded to the opening question asking to explain the sluggishness of the first 30 minutes and then NCAA championship quality of play that emerged at the close.
“This is finals … those are the games that concern us the most and I take about for Advil before the game,” Stringer said. “Just because (her players) are tired, they’re into finals and we just came off a big game with Tennessee,” Stringer continued.
“I’m always hoping that we wouldn’t succumb to what the most majority of mortals that do. But the vast, vast number of players play to the competition but I do know everybody was tired.
“I’m happy that our freshmen were able to step up and gain some confidence so we can show them some things we need to do. That was the best measuring stick for us because we looked better as a freshmen group than we have had this been a month ago.
“So there’s a lot of hope for continued improvement among everybody but particularly the freshmen.”
Senior April Sykes scored 18 points, the only Rutgers player to reach double figures, while Kristna Ford scored 11 points and Damika Martinez scored 10 for the Gaels, who were hounded into 26 turnovers, giving the Scarlet Knights a 29-6 advantage in transition.
Rushdan, also a senior, scored eight points and did not get any assists, leaving her one dish from becoming the first male or female in both basketball programs to gain over 1000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists.
Freshman Betnijah Laney, the talented blue chipper whose mother Yolanda starred for Stringer as an all-American at Cheyney, also scored eight points and helped get Rutgers untracked while rookie Shakena Richardson scored nine points and Syessence Davis in 25 minutes in the backcourt scored five points and dealt five points in a solid performance.
Sykes was asked about the help the newcomers provided in a 36-7 run after Iona had closed an eight-point deficit to four at 26-22 with 13 minutes, 32 seconds left in the game.
“It’s very important as the old heads and our bodies start to break down,” Sykes said. “It’s great to see them step up. And one thing you can say is our freshmen will always give you energy no matter whether they know what they’re doing or not.
“It’s great to see them grasping the offensive side plus the defensive side, And that showed in the last few minutes of the game.”
Added Rushdan, “I almost got a technical standing up cheering for them, but it’s great to see them like that because it helps us as a team and it helps build their confidence as we push further into the season.”
Meanwhile Iona coach Anthony Bozzella was philosophical about the way things went though it was noted to him that considering that the Gaels’ final total matched Delaware junior sensation all-American Elena Delle Donne’s scoring average if they had played her five-on-one without her Blue Hens teammates they would have been able to go into overtime.
“I thought we did what we were supposed to do, I was proud of the girls,” Bozzella said of the competitive nature before Rutgers put the hammer down.
“With eight minutes to go it’s 37-27 and then obviously the last eight minutes, (Rutgers’) superior athleticism and overall strength really just wore us down.
“We followed the game plan. Our plan was to make them shoot 22 threees, I think they shot 24 (no that’s not the offense that Villanova’s Harry Perretta taught the Scarlet Knights in the preseason),” Bozzella related.
“Our goal was to not get killed on the boards and stay within 10, we lost by five. They’re a very good team, I think they have an opportunity to get to the Final Four. The coach has done a great job. They have a very good basketball team and I think we held them to some of their lowest points all year.
“In the last eight minutes it got away from us but it’s ok.”
Iona is on the road the whole month of December but Bozzella said perhaps he should fire himself for making the schedule.
“But I wanted to go to different places. In the long run it will help us. They’re very impressive. In our league we’re the most athletic team. Normally, we don’t play like this but clearly we weren’t going to do that today.
“She went to switch to that high energy man-to-man,” Bozzella said of when the game fell apart for his team. “In our league we’re not going to face that.
“I’ve watched Rutgers a long time and clearly this is one of their better teams. We played Villanova and clearly that’s one of their better teams, too.
“But it’s good for us. Us and Marist in our league play the toughest schedule. We probably gained more today than we would have in a 20-point win in a game that’s (below) our level.”
Rutgers next visits George Washington, the former Atlantic 10 power, in the nation’s capital on Dec. 30 and then returns home Jan. 3 to open the Big East schedule against Syracuse.
Had Texas A&M not come back to edge Southern Cal, quite possibly Rutgers could have jumped into the Top 10 though it is still a possibly but less so because of the Aggies’ comeback.
Furthermore No. 8 Kentucky lost to No. 3 Notre Dame in what could be called the undercard to Sunday night’s showdown won by top-ranked Baylor over No. 2 Connecticut, 67-61, rallying from an 11-point deficit in the second half.
In any event this week’s vote will enable Stringer to move into a tie for fourth place on the all-time list of coaching appearances in the AP rankings with retired Texas coach Jody Conradt.
Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, with only 14 absences in the entire AP poll history of 36 seasons, leads while Georgia’s Andy Landers is second followed by Stanford's Tara VanDerveer.
Landmark Staley Win
South Carolina (9-2) crushed No. 18 North Carolina 79-48 to drop the Tar Heels to 7-2 in a nonconference game played annually in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and giving Dawn Staley one of her more significant wins since leaving Temple for the Gamecocks in the spring of 2008.
It’s possible, considering No. 20 Vanderbilt’s upset loss to North Carolina State, that Staley’s squad could crack the AP poll when the rankings are announced Monday afternoon.
If not, the Gamecocks should still get close enough to returning for the first time since a listing of 16th in the final poll of 2002-03.
Staley had Temple nationally-ranked in 2005 and 2006 and she would become part of a special list of coaches with two different teams in the poll, tough an even smaller list headed by Stringer, Texas A&M’s Gary Blair and Ohio State’s Jim Foster has had three different teams reach the AP rankings.
As finals conclude La Salle visits Drexel in a key city but non-Big Five tilt Monday night and Saint Francis, Pa., will be visiting St. Joseph’s.
Meanwhile, Delaware, which should move up a bit from its No. 22 ranking Monday afternoon, visits Providence at night.
The Red Flashes of St. Francis are coached by former Penn State star Susan Robinson Fruchtl, who has guided the team to champions in the Northeast Conference.
UCLA visits Temple on Tuesday and St. Joseph’s on Thursday.
That’s it for the moment. Look for tweets during the day at @womhoopsguru involving breaking news and the next blog will before the next sunrise with coverage of Drexel (tweeting will originate) and St. Joseph’s.