Countdown to 2015–16: Put simply, Bryant senior Breanna Rucker got game
The reigning Northeast Conference women’s basketball player of the year might have excelled on a very different stage. Breanna Rucker, a 5–11 swingman and poster of 16.0 points and 11.4 rebounds for Bryant a season ago (read: 22 double-doubles), was actually a cheerleader. “From the time I could walk,” Rucker says of it.
Then, Rucker’s dad sat her down for a little talk. With five kids in the family, a college scholarship would help immensely. So, they made a list of Rucker’s best options to get one. Basketball soon leapt to the fore. At that point, hoops was a hobby, but Rucker decided to pursue it. “I fell in love with it, and the rest is history,” she says.
It was hardly a straight path to her current standing. Rucker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during her junior year of high school. The timing couldn’t have been worse. That July evaluation period, before a player’s senior year, is crucial, but Rucker had to miss it.
As interest from a number of potential suitors waned, the Bryant Bulldogs continued to keep tabs. Mary Burke, Bryant’s long-time head coach, went to Cincinnati, Ohio to watch Rucker in a playoff game during her senior season for Princeton High. Here was a top-75 talent, hobbled. Rucker mustered six points, but Burke could tell she was still limited by that knee.
When Rucker took an official visit to Bryant, Burke saw first-hand the traits that would allow her to thrive on the Smithfield, R.I. campus. Great personality, great student. Just a great kid. What Burke didn’t yet know was that she was getting one of the most dynamic forces in college basketball. “We were lucky, to be honest,” Burke says.
During her freshman season, Rucker still wasn’t fully fit. “She’d take jump shots, and she was still compensating with that leg,” says Burke. By the second half of her debut season, she began to come into her own. Her sophomore season, despite dealing with some problems with the IT band in her right knee, Rucker averaged 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Then, as a junior, she took off. Burke, who’d initially recruited Rucker as a three guard, suddenly had a Stretch 4. “She’s created a new dimension for us, in terms of what we want for our program,” says Burke. “She can shoot, take you off the dribble, and use her athleticism to finish at the rim. She’s a forward, with guard skills, and athleticism and explosiveness. At this level, the more versatility you have, the more opportunities you’ll get.”
Being healthy was paramount: Rucker’s effectiveness hinges upon her ability to play inside-out. From there, her insatiable competitive drive kicks in. That was honed from competing against her younger brother, by just a year, and her many cousins, back home. (Didn’t hurt that dad played for three teams in the NFL.) Rucker was often the only girl out there, playing football, basketball, or soccer.
A fearlessness grew from those games. When asked about the best part of her game, Rucker pauses before answering, “If there’s a loose ball, I’m going after it. A lot of girls think about what will happen if they mess up; I’m just like, ‘Whatever.’ I’m out there diving everywhere. One of the things I’m best at is not thinking. I just do.”
“Workhorse” was the term used by the Northeast Conference to describe Rucker in its POTY press release last spring. That might be a trifle limiting, but Rucker embraces it. She knows that her drive enhances her skill. Burke sees it too. “She has all the intangibles,” Burke says. “Offensive rebounds, scrappiness, toughness. She’s not just out there shooting threes; she provides the extra hustle plays.”
Burke has spoken to her about what to expect from defenses this season: double teams collapsing the moment Rucker gets the ball in the post. A target is being painted, to place upon her back. “Obviously, she wasn’t unknown last year, but people didn’t expect she could play at that level,” says Burke. “There will be more expectations for our program this year, and she’ll be challenged more so now than ever. Everyone will be trying to stop the best player in the league.”
Says Rucker, “It’s pressure, but I can’t think about it as that. Now that these coaches know me, and know what I can do, I gotta change it up.”
This summer, she’s diversified her offensive skill set. She always had the drop step, “but teams will expect that now,” says Rucker. In the past, Rucker often tried to face up in the low post. She felt more comfortable attacking in that manner. So, she’s worked hard on her back to the basket game. “I’ll keep the old stuff, but I’ve got new tricks,” she says.
Twenty-two wins last season marked the most for Bryant since the Bulldogs made the switch from DII to DI ahead of ‘08–09. They earned a share of the regular season conference championship, and had home-court advantage for the conference tourney semifinal against Robert Morris. The two teams had been neck-and-neck in two previous contests; in the semis, Robert Morris emerged with a victory. Asked if that setback diminished the accomplishments of the season, Burke said that while she was very happy with the records set, this team had its hearts set on making that final.
The loss has certainly stuck with Rucker. “And the rest of the team, too,” she says. “There were a lot of girls that stayed on campus this summer to get better. We want to reach further. We want to get to the NCAA tournament. We have the potential; now it’s about using that loss to Robert Morris as motivation to push us past that point.”
In her sophomore season, Bryant also lost to Robert Morris in the conference semis. So, Rucker developed a mantra this offseason. This is the year we’ll make it. “Once we see the NCAA tournament bracket with our name, it’s gonna be awesome,” she says.
Yes, it’s a stirring prospect, to lead a proud program to unprecedented heights at the DI level. But Rucker loves Bryant in large part because she isn’t defined as a basketball player. She is known around campus simply as “Breanna”. Her circle of friends extends well beyond the hardwood. On a given night, she might be in attendance at an A capella performance, or a talent show.
“That was one of my things, when I was picking a school,” says Rucker. “I didn’t to be known just for basketball. I want to be known for ‘Breanna’. Laughing, enjoying life. That’s my personality. It’s not just about a sport I play. I love that I’ve found that here.”
Couldn’t be a more perfect fit.