1434176425 Sugar Rodgers is back and better than ever.

The Hoyas’ star guard — already the Big East’s most dominant scorer — spent the summer fine-tuning her jump shot, practicing free throws and staying in shape for her upcoming junior season. All that and another year of tournament experience under her belt from last year’s run to the Sweet 16 spells nothing but trouble for opposing defenses.

“I’ve been working on tightening up jump shots, free throws,” Rodgers said, visibly more relaxed in an interview setting than in the past. “I’m trying to get in the 90 percent [free -throw shooting] club. Threes, I’m trying to get like Ray Allen — 50 percent.”

Rodgers has been a force to be reckoned with since arriving on the Hilltop in 2009. She led the Hoyas in scoring as a freshman and was second only to Connecticut’s Maya Moore in last season’s Big East scoring race. She lit up Maryland for 34 points and nine rebounds in the second round of the 2011 1650135885NCAA tournament and was instrumental in the postseason run that established Georgetown among the elite of women’s basketball.

Now, however, it’s about more than scoring. With the graduation of Monica McNutt, the Blue and Gray lost their vocal leader and biggest locker room presence. And although the six seniors will undoubtedly shoulder some of that responsibility this season, Rodgers knows she will be expected to speak up more often and provide leadership for the younger players.

If the team’s practices thus far are any indication, she’s ready for the job.

“You can definitely tell that she’s become an upperclassman,” senior forward Adria Crawford said. “She’s a lot more vocal than she has been in the past. She’s a lot more ‘gimme the ball’ instead of just letting it come to her.”

Rodgers’ most notable career achievements thus far have been made with the ball in her hands, but perhaps her biggest improvements this season have come off the ball. Teammates and coaches have noticed a marked increase in the star guard’s intensity level on the defensive end, which may be enough to earn her McNutt’s old spot at the head of Georgetown’s trademark full-court press.

“She’s been more than points. Defensively, she has been great,” senior forward Tia Magee said. “She’s been playing the top of our press, and she’s been doing a really, really good job.”

1979455765But while Rodgers has been spectacular in her two years wearing the blue and gray, she is still far from perfect. The superstar’s greatest weakness has always been her lack of consistent focus; she can show flashes of brilliance only to disappear for long stretches. But with upperclassman status comes a newfound sense of urgency, and Rodgers’ weakness could soon be a thing of the past.

“Playing hard every night, I think I lacked that,” Rodgers said. “I played when I wanted to play. Now I’m going to play hard, because I’m trying to get to the championship game.”

The NCAA title may seem ambitious for a program with only three tournament trips to its name, but the championship game is definitely more than just a pipe dream. The rotation from last year’s Sweet 16 squad remains intact with the exception of McNutt, and Head Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy’s solid recruiting class will likely make immediate contributions. The new players, in fact, are talented enough that they may be able to take some of the scoring load off of Rodgers.

“I think she’ll score more than what [McNutt] did,” Rodgers said of freshman 3015809002guard Taylor Brown. “Taylor can dribble and get to the basket. It’ll even take pressure off me. If she’s scoring, people will go and check her, then I can score.”

The national press has finally taken notice of the Hoyas’ success, and the team won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. ESPN’s early preseason rankings from last spring named Georgetown the nation’s No. 9 team, and Rodgers was recently named to the Wooden Award preseason top 30 by the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

4159692486Rodgers, however remains focused on the real prize.

“That actually doesn’t mean nothing to me. Until I get the award, that’s when it means something,” Rodgers said. “I’m just trying to win it, and I’m just trying to go to the championship game.”

Although all signs indicate the Georgetown superstar is more focused and mature entering her junior year, the self-confidence and spontaneity that made Rodgers great in her first two seasons is clearly still present.

“For some reason, she has stepped out a little bit further to shoot the three. As long as it goes in, we’ll keep letting her stay that far,” Williams-Flournoy said. “She’s been playing with a lot of confidence. … The better she plays, the better we are altogether as a team.”

For the rest of the Big East, the latest word on Sugar is anything but sweet.

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