PISCATAWAY, N.J. — It's no surprise that Betnijah Laney has always felt comfortable around Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. After all, Stringer is her godmother, keeping a baby photo of the prize freshman on her desk.
Laney grew up around Stringer and the Rutgers women's basketball program — her mom played for the Hall of Fame coach at Cheyney State. Knowing Stringer made her college choice a little easier.
"It helped me know I was coming to someone I could trust, someone I know will help me get to where I want to be as a basketball player," Laney said. "We went on a cruise and I was at her son's baby shower. When she moved, we went to her housewarming."
Laney's first memory of Rutgers is something she keeps close. On her phone is a photo from when she was 6 years old, standing behind Tasha Pointer and Shawnette Stewart as they sign autographs.
Now Laney's the one who is being asked for her signature. She and her talented freshmen classmates have been a huge reason for the No. 12 Scarlet Knights' early success this season.
This class was highly touted coming out of high school, led by Laney, who scored 18 points in her first game — the most by a Rutgers true freshman in her debut since Usha Gilmore had 20 in 1996. Her classmates have provided energy and a contagious enthusiasm that have carried over to the rest of the team, which has won 10 of its first 12 games.
Despite knowing Laney since she was an infant, Stringer shows her no favoritism.
"She's not easier on me than everyone else. I don't have any advantage because I have a personal relationship with her," Laney said. "She treats me like everyone else. It's different between being on the court and off the court with her."
Knowing Stringer before coming to Rutgers has helped Laney separate the coach's on-court and off-court personality. That's something not every recruit has been able to handle. The highly recruited current senior class was supposed to be the group that would lead Rutgers to its first NCAA championship.
It just hasn't worked out for them. Jasmine Dixon and Brooklyn Pope transferred during their freshman years and Chelsey Lee is sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury, leaving just April Sykes and Nikki Speed left from that group. Rutgers also had two of its freshmen transfer out after last season.
Freshman Briyona Canty knows the history and has been doing what she can to make sure that this class doesn't repeat what happened.
"We talk about it all the time," she said. "They left, but sometimes leaving is a sign of weakness — you can't handle coach Stringer. With coach Stringer, you have to be patient. She's a Hall of Fame coach and knows what she's doing."
It probably helps that Canty as well as classmates Syessence Davis, Christa Evans and Shakena Richardson all grew up in New Jersey and were well versed on Rutgers and Stringer.
Sykes and her class hailed from all over the country.
"We were from all over the place," she said. "We've been through a lot in our four years and try to impart some of our wisdom on this group so that they don't make the same mistakes."
Stringer seems to have more patience with this group of freshmen, allowing them to learn from their mistakes on the court instead of quickly pulling them out. She credits a conversation with Pat Summitt for her change in attitude.
"Pat saw me on the sidelines and said it didn't look like I was having any fun," Stringer said. "She told me to relax."
Summitt laughed when recalling the conversation.
"I shouldn't have told her that, at least not before we played them," Summitt said before her team beat Rutgers 66-61 on Dec. 13.
Stringer has let her five freshmen play together as a unit during games. On Sunday in a 62-29 win over Iona, the freshmen were the catalyst in a spurt that broke open a tight game.
"We just go out there and have fun," Canty said. "We've really made the seniors feel like kids again."
Sykes, Speed and fifth-year senior Khadijah Rushdan credit the freshmen for reinvigorating the program. The Scarlet Knights had lost 13, 15, and 13 games during their first three seasons — the most by any Rutgers class in a decade.
"We're having so much more fun out there this year," Speed said. "It's been the most fun of my career. These freshmen are a huge reason why."
When Rutgers dropped its first game of the season in double overtime at Miami, Sykes wouldn't let the freshmen dwell on it.
"We talked about it and how we can't let one loss let us spiral downwards," she said. "Most of them hadn't lost more than a game or two in high school. They really have given us a boost this year."
If they keep developing on the court and stay together, the freshmen might not lose that many more at Rutgers.
"We are coming together," Canty said, "and it's really getting there to a point where we love it like a family."
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