PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Rutgers has been looking for a signature win all season and now the Scarlet Knights finally have one.
Erica Wheeler scored a career-high 23 points, including an off-balance 3-pointer with the shot clock running out in overtime, and No. 8 Rutgers rallied to beat 16th-ranked Louisville 71-68 on Saturday.
Rutgers has won six straight games and is off to its best start since 2007-08 when it won 17 of its first 19 games. It was the Scarlet Knights' first victory over a ranked opponent this season.
With her young team, coach C. Vivian Stringer has scheduled a little lighter this year. The Scarlet Knights had played just two games against Top 25 teams coming into the day, losing in double overtime at Miami and dropping a six-point game against Tennessee.
"It's extremely important," senior Khadijah Rushdan said of beating a ranked team. "Not to say anything against our previous opponents, but we haven't played anyone to the caliber of Tennessee, Miami, or Louisville. It's an important growing process for us. We can't only show up for the big games. We need to approach every game like this."
Trailing 68-67, Wheeler rebounded Rushdan's miss and dribbled out to the 3-point line. She barely recognized the shot clock was down to its last tick before turning around and connecting with 1:12 left in the extra period.
"First thing I did when I caught the ball was saw the clock and saw there were 3 seconds," Wheeler said.
Rushdan knew it was a big play.
"I said thank you to her," Rushdan said laughing. "It was so ugly, but it went in. I'm grateful she made that shot."
The Scarlet Knights (15-2, 4-0 Big East) forced a shot clock violation on the other end. After Monique Oliver's lay-in rolled off the rim with 13 seconds left, Louisville had one last chance to tie it, but Bria Smith's drive came up short and Rushdan sealed the win with a free throw with 1.2 seconds left.
"One of the coaches was saying they hadn't seen that kind of fight in us for a while," Stringer said. "It's good to see us grind that one out and we'll be more confident because of this situation."
Freshman Shawnta' Dyer led the Cardinals (14-4, 3-2) with a season-high 16 points. Dyer, Cierra Warren and Sheronne Vails combined for 40 points, going 18 for 27 from the field.
"We got a great game out of all our posts," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "I know they can do that and that's encouraging to me. They are learning that college basketball isn't easy and you got to work at it. Now some of them are starting to realize that. They showed they can do this. I'm going to expect it."
April Sykes scored 17 of her 19 points in the second half for the Scarlet Knights, who trailed 41-28 early in the period.
Sykes, Wheeler and Rushdan fueled the Scarlet Knights' rally. After going a combined 4 for 19 in the first half, the trio scored all 20 points during a run that tied it at 48 with 7:35 left.
"We're up 13 and I know the game wasn't anywhere close to being over," Walz said. "We were letting them take open shots, they went on a run and made some shots. We were right there going back and forth at the end."
The teams traded baskets until Sykes' 3-pointer put Rutgers ahead 58-56 with 3:02 left in regulation. Smith made two free throws to tie it, but Oliver hit one of two from the line to give Rutgers the lead with 1:36 left.
Smith was fouled a minute later and connected on both her free throws to give Louisville a 60-59 lead. Wheeler was fouled on the ensuing possession and made one of two. Shoni Schimmel got the rebound, but threw the ball out of bounds on the other end, giving Rutgers one last chance.
Sykes missed a 15-footer and Wheeler the follow, sending the game to overtime.
With the game tied at 23 with 3 minutes left in the first half, Louisville scored the final nine points before the break. Cierra Warren had the first two baskets then Becky Burke followed with a 3-pointer. Shelby Harper converted two free throws with two-tenths of a second left.
Rutgers' only bright spot on offense in the first half was Oliver. She had 10 points at intermission, making five of her eight shots.
The Cardinals continued their run to start the second half, scoring nine of the first 11 points to open a 41-28 lead when Burke hit all three free throws after she was fouled on a 3-point attempt.