Rutgers finds an offensive groove in 79-65 season-opening victory over Princeton

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – During the summer when Rutgers officials were tweeting pictures of the installation of the new gaudy scoreboard here in the Louis A. Brown Athletic Center, some wondered where the Scarlet Knights women’s basketball team might find enough players to provide plenty of points to post in the space located on the home side of the structure.

For the moment, the hunt appears successful based on a 79-65 non-conference victory over nearby Princeton Sunday afternoon that was the season opener for both programs. Sophomore Kahleah Copper scored 16 points to head five other teammates scoring in double figures, the first time since January 10, 2012, that five or more Scarlet Knights achieved that feat.

With Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer making Rutgers teams thrive off her noted emphasis on defense, there have been times it might be more than a month before one could find five different Scarlet Knights reaching double digits in games in that span. Last season was even more difficult as a slew of injuries helped bring Rutgers down to a 16-14 record and an absence from the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 seasons.

The Scarlet Knights also decided not to play in the WNIT ultimately won by Drexel, the runner-up in the Colonial Athletic Conference to Elena Delle Donne’s Delaware contingent.

“I’m not surprised and I don’t think they’re surprised at all and I say that because they have worked extremely hard during the summer,” Stringer said of her team’s balanced attack against the Tigers.

“It’s obvious with the shooting (32-for-59, 54.2 percent), you can see. Hearing each other’s voice. If there were 15, 20,000 people I think they would hear each other’s voice because it really matters,” Stringer continued of the win which came before a predominant home crowd of 1,433 fans in the arena.

“They know that the only way we can win is to play together. So they played hard. They played together. I’m not surprised. They’re making the pass to the open person and they understand what each one does. It’s good to see.”

Junior Betnijah Laney, whose mother Yolanda was an All-American under Stringer at Cheyney University in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1980s, had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Laney scored two of the points from the free throw line before the game got under way, shooting a pair of technical fouls assessed Princeton for having the wrong number of a player entered into the scorebook.

Freshman sensation Tyler Scaife had an impressive debut with 13 points, shooting 5-for-9 from the field. Center Rachel Hollivay was 6-for-7, scoring 13 points, while Syessence Davis, coming into her own running the point, scored 11 and dealt six assists.

Briyona Canty, who was sidelined for the rest of last season after the seventh game with a knee injury, completed the scoring outburst with 10 points as Rutgers, formerly a mainstay of the old Big East, began its one season as a member of the American Athletic Conference before moving on next time joining Maryland as new entries in the Big Ten. The outcome reversed last season’s shocker 20 miles down the road when Rutgers was wiped out 71-55 in the Tigers’ Jadwin Gym to end a 14-game mastery of Princeton. The Tigers went on to win a fourth straight Ivy title. Princeton is picked to win again this season over Harvard and Penn.

“It was definitely something we wanted to win because we lost to them last year, but it wasn’t so much revenge,” Laney said of the win. “It was just going into a new season and making sure we went into it the right way.”

Rutgers never trailed the entire way. Although, in the first half after building a 10-point lead, Princeton shriveled it to one before the home team went into the break up 28-25. Then, after holding a slim 34-32 advantage with 17:33 left in the game, Rutgers went on an 11-4 run and was never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The Scarlet Knights travel to Northeastern of the CAA on Wednesday.

“First of all, it’s a much improved Rutgers team,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. “They’re long. They’re athletic and we’re not as quick as we have been so we have to be really sound with our angles. We knew going into the game that we’re not there yet defensively, with the pace and understanding angles. So it’s good. A lot to build on because these guys don’t like to lose.”

Princeton was starting off without some of the firepower from last season’s 22-7 run,
particularly two-time Ivy player Niveen Rasheed, who is playing pro ball in Greece. Junior Blake Dietrick provided a large chunk of the Tigers’ attack with a game-high 20 points while sophomore Alex Wheatley had 14 points and 10 rebounds.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Banghart said of a squad with three freshmen and five sophomores launching the Tigers’ season. “I told the kids before the game, this is one of the few games I didn’t have any jitters at all, because I really didn’t know what to expect.”

“We have a lot of inexperience,” she added. “I didn’t know how we would deal with a road game. I didn’t know how we would deal with new starters we picked our starters about 20 minutes before the tip. And I didn’t know how we would deal with their pressure. We did battle. We’re way behind, defensively, but we did know that. I didn’t expect we’d shoot so poorly (22-for-58, 37.9 percent). But I really like this group. This group has a chance to be really good.”

The Tigers get another test when they next play again on Sunday, hosting Metro Athletic Athletic Conference powerhouse Marist.

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