By, Vince Menon
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Junior center Ruta Zurauskyte is experiencing a break out season, helping the Santa Clara women's basketball team get off to the program's best start since the 2001-02 season. The 6-foot, 4-inch Lithuanian native is averaging 13.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg during SCU's 6-1 start. The 8.4 rebounding average ranks second in the conference.
"She is a very determined individual," says Santa Clara head coach Jennifer Mountain. "I am extremely proud of her effort and the leadership role she has taken on with this team. Offensively, she has done a great job of developing her skill set and is improving on the defensive end daily. She's a shot blocker, a threat every time she touches the ball, and she has the heart to succeed."
Zurauskyte (RZ) took the time to give her thoughts on the team's sizzling start to SantaClaraBroncos.com (SCB), their goals for the season, and her emergence into one the league's top centers.
SCB: The team is off to a tremendous start, its best since 2001-2002. What has been the biggest reason for your success thus far?
RZ: The biggest difference between our team last year and now is our defense. During the preseason, our coaches really emphasized being more aggressive, getting in the passing lanes, and just overall applying more pressure on the defensive end. Also, it seems like it finally clicked for us that good defense really sparks our offense and just gets us fired up and ready to go.
Additionally, our team has a very deep bench this year. Everybody goes as hard as they can for their teammates on the floor, knowing that somebody else will sub in and give their all as well. Our team chemistry is just really something special.
SCB: You are averaging 8.4 rebounds per game including a remarkable 4.4 offensive boards per game. Is rebounding something that has come naturally to you? What skills and techniques have helped you take this aspect of your game to the next level?
RZ: Coach Mountain always emphasizes that rebounding is all about heart and effort as well as how hard you are willing to go. Every game I try to make a conscious effort to get in the key and take the contact in order to get the rebounds. Also, being 6-foot-4 definitely gives me advantage against other players. This offseason I really worked on getting stronger and more mobile so I can be more active on the rebounds while putting myself in a good position to grab them.
SCB: While most centers struggle at the free-throw line, you are shooting over 80 percent. What is your key to success in these situations? Is there a certain mentality you have when you step to the line?
RZ: Free throw shooting is all about repetition. As a team, we take time to practice free throws at every practice. I also try to get some extra shots up on game days. When I step to the line, I always visualize myself making them in practice. I really focus on getting my legs in the shot as well as having a good follow through.
SCB: Last season you appeared in three games off the bench. This season, however, you have started all seven games thus far and have been one of the team's biggest contributors. How much effort did you put into offseason training? How has that dedication paid off and helped you develop as a player this season?
RZ: During the offseason I really focused on getting myself more mobile and stronger. For most of the summer I worked out with our strength and conditioning Coach Cory Schlesinger, who helped me become stronger and get in better shape. I also worked on developing my post play and focused on a few go-to moves that I can use in a game. It also helped being able to play with a post player like Lena Gipson. I had a chance to watch her play for two years and learn from her.
SCB: With the team off to such a fast start, what are your goals for the rest of the season?
RZ: Our goals for the rest of the season include continuing to win and improving as a team every time we step on the court. The main goal that we are working towards is reaching post-season play. We want to do well in the WCC and finish in the top of our conference as well as get the chance to play afterwards.
SCB: After playing five of your first six games at home (and winning each one) you just began four straight road games with a 90-72 victory at CSU Northridge. What is the biggest adjustment you have to make when playing away from the Leavey Center? Do the trips provide an opportunity to bond with teammates and develop team chemistry?
RZ: The biggest adjustment that we have to make on the road is to focus on having extra energy and being fired up to play right at the tip, since we do not have our fans to cheer and help us out. The trips are always a good time to bond with teammates since we get to spend a few days being together constantly, which builds our team chemistry. We are such a diverse group that every trip is entertaining in a different way.
SCB: Finally, what aspect of your game would you like to improve the most? How will you go about doing this?
RZ: There are many things that I really need to work on but my focus right now is being able to finish through contact. Many times during the game I miss layups and easy put backs. I am working on getting stronger and being able to absorb the contact and finish at the same time as well as just being more efficient all around.
SCU Profile: Ruta Zurauskyte's Emergence Into One of the WCC’s Top Centers
By, Vince Menon