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By DANNY P. SMITH
The Rutgers University women's basketball team is getting hot and so is April Sykes.
Sykes, a former player at East Oktibbeha High School in Crawford, averaged 18 points in two games as the Scarlet Knights won the Hyatt Place Lady Rebel Round-up Championship in Las Vegas, Nev., and was chosen the Tournament MVP.
Going into her third season at Rutgers, Sykes is gaining confidence and success in Las Vegas has done wonders for her confidence.
"It's been a learning process from my freshman year until now," Sykes said. "I've learned a lot. I had a hard couple of years, but I've grown from it and I believe I've accomplished more, knowing my past and how my freshman and sophomore years came about. I've done 10 times better this year than I've done in my past years. My shot is falling better."
While in Las Vegas, Sykes scored 19 points in a 71-39 victory for the Scarlet Knights against Pacific, then followed that up with an 18-point effort in a 65-52 win against Oregon State.
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said Sykes is understanding more and more how to approach the game.
"I thought she was really relaxed and calm," Stringer said of Sykes play in Las Vegas. "She didn't seem to be rushing things. She stayed in a flow and let the ball come to her."
Stringer believes Sykes is more comfortable with her game now that she's entered her junior season.
One of the reasons for that is that Sykes has worked extremely hard to battle back from a shoulder injury suffered during her freshman season.
"She knew what she needed to do after her freshman year and had the right attitude," Stringer said. "She had that (shoulder) surgery and in itself made her basically immobile. They wouldn't allow her to run or anything so she gains weight, she's out of shape, doesn't get a touch and wasn't satisfied with her freshman year - none of us were.
"The next thing you know, the year approaches again. So it's been that kind of situation for her. She has worked hard, she has lost weight, she is in better condition and I think that she's much more confident, and she's worked with a number of people to help herself be more efficient."
As a highly-recruited player out of East Oktibbeha, Stringer knows the pressure to perform can be a tremendous burden for Sykes.
Stringer has done what she can to keep that from happening.
"What April wants to do and what we need her to do is unlock," Stringer said. "I don't intend to put anything on her in terms of expectations (by saying) you should do this or you should do that. I need her to be a part of everybody else and not worry about it because the greatest burden that anyone ever has is the expectation that one has of oneself and the expectation that everybody else has.
"It's a matter of trying as best as you can because she cares about people, she cares about this team, and she's trying to deliver."
Stringer knows Sykes has "it within her" to be a good player, but wants her to rely on teammates more saying, "It's not her. It's on everybody."
Sykes values Stringer's instruction and doesn't consider the fact she's playing for a Hall of Fame coach.
"It's like having a famous person as a mother or father," Sykes said. "It becomes common to you because you see them every day and you are around them. She cares for you as a person on and off the court and as a coach, she's a great mentor you can learn from. I don't even look at her as a Hall of Fame coach because I see her every day."
Prior to playing for the Scarlet Knights, Sykes was tutored by coach Cynthia Davenport at East Oktibbeha.
Sykes said basketball has always been a part of her life, but Davenport taught her life lessons off the court.
"She helped me grow as a person and taught me there was more to life outside of basketball," Sykes said. "She helped me realize there was a life off the basketball court as far as the classroom and being a leader. Even in college, leading my team in high school has helped me with our freshmen this year."
While comparing coaches, Sykes said you can take Davenport's personality, add more fire to it and get Stringer.
"(Stringer) reaches a whole another level of intensity," Sykes said.
Stringer has Rutgers playing well after it lost the first two games of the season. The Scarlet Knights, who travel to Temple tonight, have now won four-straight.
"Things are going well right now," Sykes said. "We're growing as a team and learning and maturing faster. We're a young team, but it doesn't show as much on the court because we've grown and love playing basketball with each other. It's been pretty easy so far."
Sykes admits misses home, but takes pride each time she's introduced by the public address announcer as being from Starkville, Mississippi.
"I'm doing this for Mississippi," Sykes said of her standing at Rutgers. "They know Starkville is on the map. There are positive things coming from that."