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Rutgers women’s basketball wins third straight as they chase NCAA Tournament bid

The Scarlet Knights are rising up the Big Ten standings but need to maximize on the few opportunities that remain this season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 22 Women’s Ohio State at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers women’s basketball had a big week on the road, knocking off no. 20/21 Northwestern by the score of 70-54 on Thursday, followed by a 75-57 victory at Purdue on Valentine’s Day. The Scarlet Knights are now 3-0 since resuming action after a five week pause due to COVID-19 positive results within the program. They haven’t missed a beat and are now on a steady climb up the Big Ten standings.

On Thursday, Rutgers pulled the upset behind a balanced attack and dominate defense. They held the Wildcats to 38.0% shooting and were +9 on the boards. In a game that was tied at the half, RU outscored Northwestern 23-10 in the fourth quarter.

Tyia Singleton led the way with 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting and 7 rebounds. Tekia Mack had a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Arella Guirantes had 15 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds. Diamond Johnson had 14 points behind 4 of 6 shooting from three-point range, as well as 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Mael Gilles added 6 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds.

On Sunday, Rutgers used another big fourth quarter (23-13) to win going away against Purdue. It was a stellar team shooting performance as the Scarlet Knights were 51.9% from the floor, 9 of 20 for 45.0% from three-point range and 10 of 12 for 83.3% from the free throw line. RU was +8 on the glass and forced 17 turnovers.

Arella Guirantes shined with 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting, as well as 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocked shots. Diamond Johnson had 19 points behind 4 of 8 shooting from three-point range, while adding 9 rebounds and 6 assists, both career highs. Tekia Mack added 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals.

Rutgers is now 8-3 on the season and 4-3 in Big Ten play. They are one of eight teams with winning conference records in the Big Ten so far. The Scarlet Knights have played significantly less games than every other conference foe except for Michigan, who are 6-1 and also missed weeks of action due to a shutdown related to COVID-19.

The NCAA Tournament chances for this team remain unclear but they are certainly trending in the right direction after this past week. After Sunday’s win over Purdue, Rutgers has a NET ranking of 12, the third highest of any Big Ten team. While it’s not likely they’ll have time to make up many of the eight games that were postponed, focusing on winning the games that are on the remaining schedule is the key.

The issue is that the margin for error for Rutgers is slim due to having played so many less games than almost every other high major program. ESPN’s Charlie Creme wrote this weekend before the Purdue game that a team like Rutgers would greatly benefit from the Big Ten Tournament not taking place because they could potentially make up four of the previous eight games that were postponed. While the men’s conference tournament has officially been moved to Indianapolis, nothing has been announced on the women’s side.

As of now Creme has the Scarlet Knights in the NCAA Tournament field, but he explains how unstable their fate is at the moment:

Rutgers (No. 10 seed): The Scarlet Knights (7-3) played Sunday for the first time in five weeks. Eight games were postponed. Rutgers is 18th in the NET and prior to its return to action was drifting down the S-curve rankings. Winning their two games this week, including a big one on Thursday night at Northwestern, has stabilized the Scarlet Knights’ spot in the field for now, but résumé remains thin. There just hasn’t been enough to evaluate. The rest of the teams near the cut line have played significantly more games. We don’t know how the committee will look at these discrepancies, but it makes sense to give stronger consideration to teams that have played more games. If Rutgers were to make up even a portion of the missed games, it could really benefit the Scarlet Knights because the current remaining schedule has only two games against teams with a winning record.

In order to complete its schedule, Rutgers would have to play 15 games (eight postponed and seven upcoming) in four weeks. Another COVID-19 pause and the Scarlet Knights might not reach the minimum 13 games to be NCAA tournament-eligible (although teams can apply for a waiver by Feb. 20).

All Rutgers can do is take advantage of the opportunities they have control over, including this week with a pair of home games. They’ll host Minnesota on Wednesday night and Illinois for a Saturday matinee. Both are essentially must win games, as the Gophers are 6-8 in Big Ten play and the Illini are in last place at 1-12. The only other games left on the regular season schedule are road games to Michigan State, who are 6-5 in B1G play, Penn State who is 5-8 in league action, followed by the finale at home against Ohio State, who are near the top of the conference standings at 8-3.

“We’re getting focused on playing our best basketball of the season heading into March,” said Guirantes after Sunday’s win over Purdue. “We will hold ourselves to that standard.”

A major key to the rest of the season is the play of the starters, as Arella Guirantes, Tekia Mack, and Mael Gilles have played every minute of both games this past week and Diamond Johnson missed just one minute of action. That’s a lot to ask of the starters as the season heads down the stretch, even as experienced and talented as they are. Obviously they are rested after a five week break. Whether they can maintain its high level of play as the schedule becomes a grind is something to watch for as this team fights for another NCAA Tournament bid. The next few weeks should bring plenty of excitement and intrigue for this team.