Rutgers coach compares Zags to UConn

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SPOKANE — As if playing in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament wasn’t enough pressure, Gonzaga’s first-round opponent, Rutgers, made it worse.

“They remind us of Connecticut, just because of the style,” Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer said Friday afternoon.

That’s Connecticut as in winner of five of the past 10 national titles, 24 consecutive tournament berths and a No. 1 seed in this Kingston (R.I) Regional.

“It makes you feel pretty good,” Gonzaga senior Katelan Redmon said. “They’re one of the best teams in the nation. Being compared to them makes you feel pretty good. Now we have to come out and play like that.”

The 11th-seeded Bulldogs (26-5) play sixth-seeded Rutgers (22-9) in the first round Saturday at 1:15 p.m. at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center. The second game of the doubleheader is second-seeded Miami (25-5) against No. 15 Idaho State (24-7). The winners play Monday night for a trip to Kingston.

“If you look at stats of a Connecticut game, you’re usually going to find 15 to 20 assists per game,” Stringer said. “That’s what this team does. They move the ball well and everybody is reading each other extremely well. They’re not as big and all those other things, but nonetheless they remind me of that.”

Which means the game should be quite a contrast in styles.

While Gonzaga averages 75.5 points a game, eighth in the NCAA, Rutgers is 32nd in defense, allowing 64.4 points.

“They have four or five different defenses they can go to,” said GU coach Kelly Graves, who has his team in the NCAAs for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time in six seasons. “They can pick you up full court with some denial pressure, they like to trap full court then bring it back and trap you in the half court. They run that matchup zone as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

And that’s not even what impresses Graves the most.

“They played harder than any team I’ve ever seen, that’s the honest truth,” he said. “They play consistently hard.

“I’m not sure we can be ready for everything they can throw at us,” Graves added. “We just have to make sure we’re always playing with our heads on a swivel, that we’re helping each other.”

The Scarlet Knights, in their 10th consecutive NCAA tournament, 14th in Stringer’s 17 seasons and 23rd overall, have had an up-and-down season. They started 15-2, despite a double-overtime defeat at Miami, to reach No. 7 in the country.

Then came a five-game losing streak that included 30-point defeats against top-five teams Notre Dame and UConn. Point guard Khadijah Rushdan missed two of those games with a concussion.

Then it was five victories in a row before losing to UConn again, 52-43, in the Big East tournament, and the Scarlet Knights come into this NCAA tournament ranked No. 23.

Offense is their Achilles heel. Rutgers averages 60.5 points, 191st in the nation. Guard April Sykes, who played on the Pan Am team with Redmond and teammate Kayla Standish last summer, leads the way at 13.3 points a game with center Monique Oliver adding 12.0. Rutgers holds teams to 34.7-percent shooting and forces 18 turnovers a game.

“We have to make sure we stay composed,” said Standish, who leads Gonzaga with 15.5 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. “We have to take care of the ball.”

Redmon, who adds 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds, said, “They’re aggressive. We have to play strong, be confident, be composed, just be prepared for a lot of pressure.”