Rutgers dug deep to reverse fortunes

Now, Knights may be poised for greatness.

Posted: March 28, 2007

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Eight years ago, the Greensboro Coliseum was the place where a young Duke squad upset three-time and defending champion Tennessee in an NCAA regional final. That brought a surprising finish to the outstanding collegiate career of then-senior Chamique Holdsclaw.

That breakthrough win enabled the Blue Devils to be annually considered a Final Four threat.

Now, a new Rutgers women's basketball era may have begun in the same arena.

The Scarlet Knights are headed for the Women's Final Four in Cleveland and a Sunday night date with Louisiana State in the national semifinals. Rutgers earned the trip with a similar stunner on Saturday to that Duke triumph.

This time, the Blue Devils, the overall No. 1 seed of the tournament, were on the receiving end of the despair when Lindsey Harding, Duke's best player, missed a pair of foul shots with one-tenth of a second remaining in regulation. Those misses allowed the fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights to escape with a 53-52 victory.

Rutgers then beat third-seed Arizona State, 64-45, Monday with yet another precision execution of coach C. Vivian Stringer's pressure defense. The win gave the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame coach 775 career victories, including stints at Iowa and Cheyney, which also made Final Four appearances.

Last weekend's performance showed how far the Scarlet Knights have come in the months after they got off to a 2-4 start. They were 5-5 in their first 10 games. Tennessee, in the first NCAA tournament in 1982, is the only other team to reach the national finals after a similar start.

"This is sort of like a dream," Rutgers junior guard Essence Carson said Monday night. "This entire run during the NCAA is sort of unreal. But at the same time we understand the hard work that put us here."

Not many expectations existed when the Rutgers players reported to preseason practice in October. Football was the talk of the campus at the time.

There was an influx of talent, but it was inexperienced. Cappie Pondexter, one of Rutgers' all-time stars, had moved on to the WNBA last spring as the pro league's overall No. 2 pick.

Junior guard Matee Ajavon, from Newark, N.J., was still recovering from surgery for a stress fracture on her left leg.

As practice got under way, Carson, from Paterson, N.J., was Stringer's most experienced player. She was also one of the few the coach could rely on initially to handle Stringer's defensive schemes.

Sophomore Kia Vaughn, a 6-foot-4 center, was a developing dominating threat in the post. Sophomore Heather Zurich, a guard, later became an extra scoring option on the perimeter.

The fabulous freshman class was headed by 5-9 guard Epiphanny Prince, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had scored 113 points to set a national high school game record the previous season. Myia McCurdy was a defensive forward from Cincinnati, while 5-9 Brittany Ray was another scoring option. Rashidat Junaid, a 6-4 center out of Camden Catholic who had been The Inquirer's South Jersey player of the year, was recruited to back up Vaughn.

Stringer wondered whether she had made the nonconference schedule too tough, although she now says it paid off.

Rutgers opened with a narrow 78-69 loss to Georgia, considered a Final Four contender. Then came an embarrassing 75-73 overtime loss to Pepperdine in California. Wins followed against Florida and Penn State, but a game against Arizona State in the Virgin Islands at the Paradise Jam was canceled when the brother of a Sun Devils player died suddenly of a heart ailment the night before the contest.

Fate, of course, had the two teams eventually meet Monday in the regional final.

Meanwhile, Stringer, to her dismay, found her young Scarlet Knights had much to learn to understand her defenses. Rutgers next got blasted, 85-45, by Duke at home, followed by a high-scoring 87-73 setback at DePaul.

"We were deficient in so many things," Stringer said.

Ajavon returned for the game with Duke, but was rusty. It was appropriate for Ajavon to be named the regional's most outstanding player Monday night after scoring 20 points, confirming her return to form.

The Duke and DePaul losses sent Rutgers plunging from the Associated Press top 25.

But three wins followed, highlighted by a triple-overtime 89-84 triumph at home against Mississippi in which the freshmen had to finish virtually alone. That enabled Stringer to gain some confidence.

A poorly played 72-55 setback at Old Dominion ended the short win streak, but in January, Rutgers hit the Big East slate with two defensive gems against Pittsburgh, 63-39, and South Florida, 62-36.

By the end of January, the Scarlet Knights had rejoined the AP weekly rankings.

Connecticut continued to be a problem for Rutgers, with home-and-home losses to the Huskies, one of which was a 70-44 rout in the final game of the regular season.

A week later, Rutgers reversed that loss with a 55-47 triumph in Hartford that gave the Scarlet Knights their first Big East title.

Then came the announcement of the NCAA pairings, and Rutgers learned that its potential road to the Final Four meant getting past Duke in the Greensboro Regional.

By then, the Blue Devils had long since become the No. 1 team in the nation with just one loss. The Scarlet Knights passed their supreme test and on Monday night, they put aside the joy to close down Arizona State and punch their ticket to the Final Four.

There are no seniors on the roster, perhaps an indication that this could be the first of many Final Four trips.


Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or mgreenberg@phillynews.com.

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