Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Guru's Musings: Tennessee's Escape Act Dealt Rutgers a Missed Opportunity

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

PISCATAWAY, N.J. –
Call Sunday’s loss to Tennessee a missed opportunity for Rutgers to finally reach a return to the power status enjoyed especially through the middle of the last decade when such current WNBA stars as Cappie Pondexter, Kia Vaughn, Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson were part of the roster and the Scarlet Knights regularly reached the Sweet 16 and even advanced to the NCAA title game against Tennessee in 2007.

The talent is certainly there at the moment in the likes of Tyler Scaife, Betnijah Laney, Briyona Canty and several others.

The fact that WNBA coach Mike Thibault was in the house to check out the seniors as well as those on Tennessee gives credence to the local worthiness.

Winning a postseason WNIT title last April in thrilling fashion, having the entire squad return from that triumph without losses to graduation, and the ability to get out from under a UConn-dominated conference to move to the Big Ten – not that women’s basketball was the driving force – provided much momentum heading into this season.

Add all that to the fact that Rutgers landed near the bottom of the preseason Associated Press women’s poll to return to the rankings and then begin a climb toward the top 10.

There’s also Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer’s move on the offensive end to finally let her thoroughbreds, as North Carolina coach Sylvia Fowles calls them, speed up the action.

A nice crowd and a national telecast courtesy of the Big Ten/ACC challenge gave Rutgers its first chance to make some noise earlier this month and the Scarlet Knights made plenty, shaking off an early 11-0 deficit to take control only to fall at the finish 96-93 in double overtime.

Some uncanny three-point shooting helped the Tar Heels’ cause in that one and afterwards there was no super disappointment on Rutgers’ side, though obviously a W could have gained mored traction.

But Tennessee was coming and even though the Lady Vols had dropped from fourth and then crept back to their current status in 11th, which might change when the new weekly poll is announced Monday, a chance to gain a rare win in the series with the program that became a national brand under Tennessee coach emritus Pat Siummitt, who stepped down after 2012 caused by her battle against early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

A larger crowd than in recent teams appeared with 4,345 in the seats, though a vocal portion of that contingent were in the house to root for Tennessee.

Incidentally, ABC news personality Robin Roberts was behind Tennessee’s bench several rows, being there to watch Cierra Burdick, who was an intern at Roberts’ network last summer.
Also the largest media turnout of the season was on press row that goes empty many nights except for the student journalistic corps and the New York Times was also represented with a sense of the implication of a Rutgers win.

More questions were about Rutgers’ standing in the world these days.

Well, following Sunday’s failures to do things not all caused by Tennessee like making shots, the standing is holding in a crouching position.

“I think Vivian just does a solid job,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said when asked about Rutgers’ position in the women’s basketball world right off the bat from the Times correspondent.

“Every year she produces solid teams and I think this is one of her best teams,” Warlick said after getting a win on her first visit to Rutgers as the head coach as opposed to the many trips that occurred as an associate head coach under Summittt.

“They always play extremely hard. They’ve always been a solid defensive team. We were really concerned about coming in to play here. She’s got athletes. She’s got competitors.”

But on Sunday Stringer had many people who missed layups and foul shots that were more about their undoing than anything Tennessee affected, though the Lady Vols’ attack on the boards and using a zone to close out a 16-2 run helped secure the win.

Stringer is no dummy. She understood in answering the same questions of relevance and what went wrong how much quicker a win would have put her Scarlet Knights back in the local buzz beyond the ongoing loyalists who have maintained their seats in both good times and bads, though there appears to be less of them in recent years.

“This one is going to sit with me,” Stringer said of the loss.

“We didn’t lock down. We just lost focus. We just lost focus,” she said of the second half flameout. “I think we know what we needed to do. Tennessee made a commitment. We knew what that commitment had to be.

Rachel Holivay, who had 10 rebounds escaped criticism due to her double digit performance on the boards and though not apparent to all during the game, Laney, her rebounding monster who set a building record with 24 during the North Carolina game, had to be shifted differently due to an injured left thumb on an opening play of the game.

“We needed more rebounds coming from everyone. It looked like times we were standing around and just backing off. They were beasts. They were fierce. But I guarantee you the next time we play, we’re going to be rebounding.”

Of course, the opponent Saturday will be Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, a match in which Rutgers will be an overwhelming favorite for just walking into the gym, even if the game is set for the gym in New Rochelle outside New York City.

“This personally hurt more. This one is not sitting well. Because of the range they were shooting the ball. We’ve been spending more time on the offensive side which is one reason we did not use the 55 (defensive press).

“We should have executed better. But offensive rebounds are killers – they’re scoring off of that. On the execution side – we weren’t even clicking on two cylinders and that’s disappointing that would happen in this game on this particularly stage and hopefully it won’t happen again.

“We’ve had too many great games that have been decided by what we will call unusual circumstances but this was a circumstance we could have controlled though Tennessee will continue to get better.”

As for the relevancy of Rutgers in the national discussion, “The best way you present a case is wins and losses, end of discussion. Like I said to the team, `You either win or lose. Period.’

“You know I think you guys make judgements (in polls and analysis) and I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. There has been serious mistakes made last year and that has been the case.

“We were far better than what it looks like. And I’m bothered about that.”

The case against Rutgers last season was the lack of quality non-conference schedule as opposed to who Stringer has normally signed up, though considering the youth of the team, was not so terrible a thing to do.

But the strength of schedule component dragged down the RPI and then came upset setbacks at Massachusetts and a few other places that on the mathematical evaluation by the NCAA tournament committee cost Rutgers an at-large bid.

Reversing a traditional dislike to play in the WNIT, Stringer reversed herself allowing the team to go and the move paid off and her talent proved itself in several gritty wins that set the stage for this season.

“We have to win,” Stringer said. “That’s the end of it. We could have. We should have. And we didn’t. I’m thinking when we some of these people again it will be different. I hope so.”

Scaife observed, “I think we do a variety of things that national teams are doing as well. Though we lost, I think we’re still up there.”

There’s no question that Rutgers can still get to their place in the sun. With the Big Ten regulars involved in preseason rankings and honors vastly undersold Rutgers’ potential.

So while a flick of the switch to the next level has been put aside for the moment, by the end of the first half of the Big Ten schedule with a potential upset of league-favorite Maryland, the other conference newcomer, which visits on January 15, and a likely win over Penn State which has gone into a rebuilding mode, the chance to make the RAC electric is still there.

It’s just Sunday was that missed opportunity you kick yourself for letting that deprive the return of the glory days with all the trappings from arriving sooner.

-- Mel



- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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