Rutgers faces another big challenge

Coach C. Vivian Stringer thinks her team is now better prepared to match up with Arizona State.

Posted: March 26, 2007

GREENSBORO, N.C. - So what will Rutgers do for an encore tonight now that the fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights have dispatched Duke, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA women's basketball tournament?

If coach C. Vivian Stringer's squad (25-8) can topple Arizona State (31-4) in the Greensboro Regional title game, Rutgers will be on its way to a second appearance at the Women's Final Four this weekend in Cleveland.

In November, the two squads were set to meet in a tournament in the Virgin Islands. The game was never played because 15-year-old Jordan Johnson, the brother of Sun Devils senior Aubree Johnson, died of a heart ailment the night before the scheduled contest.

Arizona State is seeded third, but the Scarlet Knights are the favorites after Saturday's 53-52 stunner over the Blue Devils. Duke's Lindsey Harding missed a pair of foul shots with 0.1 seconds left in regulation to clinch it.

That outcome reversed an 85-45 wipeout by Duke at Rutgers on Dec. 4, before Stringer's young squad began to mature.

The Hall of Fame coach joked yesterday about the manner of well wishes she received before the latest Duke game.

"It was like a funeral," Stringer said. "All they had to do was put a flower in my other hand. And I mean everybody. I don't think there was one person who said, 'You can get them.' "

The elimination of nearby Duke, however, had officials concerned about attendance at the Greensboro Coliseum for tonight's game without a locally affiliated team.

Meanwhile, Stringer, who recommended canceling the Arizona State game in November, was actually relieved that Rutgers did not have to face the Sun Devils' defense the first time around.

"We could not have handled that team at that time, we were so young," Stringer said. "When I asked [her players] what sort of defense we should use to stop them, one freshman said man-to-man. She didn't have a clue. We have come quite a bit since then and I think everybody knows that, so I think it will be a very, very good and competitive game."

In November, Rutgers guard Matee Ajavon was still recovering from a stress fracture in her left leg. Most of the younger Scarlet Knights were still attempting to learn Stringer's complicated defenses, including her trademark 55 press.

But Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne was not fooled by what Rutgers had displayed in scouting videotapes.

"They had some jelling to do," Turner Thorne recalled. "They had to figure out some things in terms of each other and playing to their strengths and things like that.

"I would look at them and think, 'If they get it together, wow,' and they are there now."

Rutgers will also bring much athleticism into tonight's contest, but 6-foot-4 sophomore center Kia Vaughn won't be facing imposing post players as she did against Duke.

"I just go out and do what I normally do," Vaughn said. "This is March Madness . . . and I have to be ready for anything."

Arizona State's players refuse to be sold short. Senior forward Emily Westerberg, a three-time all-Pacific Ten honoree who leads the Sun Devils in scoring with a 13.4-point average, said, "I like the fact people think we're a bunch of skinny white girls who aren't athletic."

The 6-foot Westerberg had 15 points Saturday in Arizona State's 67-49 win over Bowling Green. Danielle Orsillo, a sophomore point guard, scored 16 points after becoming a last-minute starter. Briann January was ruled out of the game because she was still suffering the after-effects of a concussion suffered in a win over Louisville.

Turner Thorne said that January had improved but that her status would be a game-time decision.

Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or

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