March 20, 2009
April Sykes'' transformation into a Division I basketball player will continue Saturday in the NCAA tournament.
Sykes and the No. 7 seed Rutgers Lady Scarlet Knights (19-12) will take on No. 10 seed Virginia Commonwealth (26-6) at approximately 1:30 p.m. at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J.
It''s not surprising Rutgers, which went 9-7 in the Big East Conference, is in the NCAA tournament.
What has been surprising is how the Scarlet Knights endured a season filled with ups and downs to earn their dancing ticket.
Sykes, a 6-foot guard/forward from East Oktibbeha High School in Crawford, has experienced plenty of those highs and lows. She is averaging 3.4 points and 2.2 rebounds in 27 games (two starts).
Sykes'' shooting percentages (27.6 from the field and 28.1 from 3-point range) are nowhere near where she wants them to be.
Sykes also has had to adjust to the demands of Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, whose teams are known for their tough defense and tireless work ethic.
But despite some struggles early in the season and some doubts about herself, Sykes is learning what it takes to survive against the best players in the women''s college game.
"I am still trying to get better with the mental part of my game," Sykes said. "I am getting better with it and the confidence part. I am coming into my own."
Sykes said in January she arrived at Rutgers with a lot of expectations. She discovered the adjustment to Division I basketball proved to be a little tougher than she had envisioned, which forced her to question herself and her role on the team.
These days, though, Sykes is taking a new approach. She said she is just going out and playing.
"I have stopped thinking so much and did what I did before I came here," Sykes said.
She said teammates and coaches have been telling her all season she just needs to relax and let the game come to her. But she said that always hasn''t been easy, particularly when you''re trying to learn how to please a coach who expects so much from you.
Sykes said she now realizes she has to move on after making a mistake and do her best to make up for it on the defensive end or by playing with intensity and hustle.
She said she also is learning to police her body language and avoid times when she might let a mistake affect her performance.
Sykes also feels more comfortable because she knows what is expected of her. She realizes junior guard Epiphany Prince and senior center Kia Vaughn are the Lady Scarlet Knights'' primary scoring options and she will do her best to get them the basketball or provide an outlet if they are guarded.
"I think my role is taking and making more shots and staying in the flow of the team and rebounding and doing whatever it takes," Sykes said. "I have done better rebounding."
Sykes said there isn''t any more excitement for the game against VCU than any other game this season. She said the team has to be careful not to get caught up in the hype of the NCAA tournament.
If it does that, she feels confident the Lady Scarlet Knights will be able to defend their home court.
"I think we got a lot better and have started to understand what coach Stringer is telling us," Sykes said. "We have started believing and playing. By just playing we look more like a team and our defense brings out our offense, which is what Rutgers basketball is all about. Once we have got that and we are believing, we''ll be fine."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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