Rutgers holds off UTEP in NIT finale
EL PASO, Texas — Tyler Scaife went coast-to-coast and scores with 2 seconds left to give Rutgers the Women’s National Invitation Tournament championship with a 56-54 win over UTEP on Saturday.
Rutgers (28-9), which led 30-16 at the half, withstood a furious second-half rally by UTEP (29-8), which tied it at 54 with 7 seconds to play on a putback by Chrishauna Parker.
Scaife took the inbounds pass and raced downcourt to score the winning points to quiet UTEP’s home sellout crowd of 12,222.
“I just knew we had to get down the floor and score,” said Scaife, a freshman who was named the tournament MVP. “I’m happy it went in.
“I’m just happy we finished the season off like this.”
Rutgers Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, who won her 929th game, said her team did well to win in a tough environment — and for the third straight time on the road.
“First of all, I think give credit to UTEP,” she said. “Great crowd, outstanding team and a great coaching job. They really truly are an outstanding team. I think that, easily, UTEP could’ve been an NCAA (tournament) team.
“But what’s most important — I thought that we probably got the greatest experience of them all, because I don’t think it could be rougher than that. I know it can’t be rougher than that in the Final Four.”
Rutgers was led by Kahleah Cooper and Scaife, who each finished with 18 points, and Briyona Canty with 12. UTEP got 16 points from Kristine Vitola and 11 from Jenzel Nash.
Both teams were playing in the 64-team WNIT for the first time and both entered on a five-game tournament win streak. Yet despite outscoring the Knights 28-26 in the second half, it was UTEP that came up one play short.
“The game was great. There are great kids on that team,” UTEP coach Keitha Adams said. “It stings because we were so close.”
UTEP trailed by 18 points early in the second half before runs of 8-2 and 12-2 helped it cut the Rutgers lead to 39-36. The Miners then took their first lead since 5-2 when Parker’s bucket gave them a 50-48 lead with 5:06 to go.
However, Rutgers was able to answer the surge, getting a jumper and two free throws from Scaife and a layup from Rachel Hollivay to go ahead 54-50 with 1:15 to play.
Vitola sank two free throws with 1:01 to go to make it 54-52, and both teams exchanged misses from the line before Parker’s rebound and putback tied it with 8 seconds to go.
Copper, who also was named to the all-tournament team, said the Scarlet Knights were not fazed by the hostile crowd. That showed late, when Rutgers held the Miners without a basket from the 5:06 mark to the final 8 seconds.
“We’ve played in crowds like this,” she said. “We played at Louisville, we played at Connecticut. We were prepared for this. So it was no different than any other time.”
The Miners, who finished with 19 turnovers, came up one play short. Twice they suffered shot-clock violations in the final 3 minutes, and their defense froze in the final seconds.
“It wasn’t just the last 6 seconds,” Vitola said. “It was the whole game.”
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