Rutgers women waltz into title game

Posted: April 02, 2007

CLEVELAND - What a ride.

Soaring Rutgers continued to rise in the NCAA tournament last night, and now the Scarlet Knights are within one step of the peak of college women's basketball.

Coach C. Vivian Stringer's youthful team advanced to tomorrow night's national championship by suffocating Louisiana State, 59-35, in front of a sellout crowd of 20,704 in the Quicken Loans Arena.

The Scarlet Knights (27-8) took control so quickly against LSU (30-8) that the only suspense left for them was the name of tomorrow night's opponent.

That was determined in the nightcap, as Tennessee came back to defeat North Carolina, 56-50.

The Scarlet Knights became just the third No. 4 seed to reach the NCAA title game.

Rutgers produced another defensive gem last night, this time led by sophomore Kia Vaughn and freshman Rashidat Junaid, a graduate of Camden Catholic High.

The two 6-foot-4 centers held Tigers all-American center Sylvia Fowles to a mere five points. The LSU center had been averaging 17.2 points a game.

The Tigers were hounded into Final Four records for fewest points, fewest field goals (14), and lowest field goal percentage (28.6, on 14-for-53 shooting).

Not one LSU player scored in double figures. Erica White led her team with nine points.

"Defensively, I knew I was going to have to stop Sylvia from getting the ball and box her out," said Junaid, who was The Inquirer's South Jersey player of the year last season.

"It feels great," Junaid said of playing in the national title game as a freshman. "I had the chance to guard one of the best post players in the country right now, and I think I did pretty well."

Fowles, however, refused to give much props to Rutgers' defense.

"I just think I had a sluggish game from the get-go and couldn't get in rhythm, and I couldn't do anything to help my team out from the [opening] jump ball," Fowles said.

Rutgers was also sensational on offense in the first half, with junior guard Matee Ajavon scoring 14 of her team-high 16 points.

Ajavon sizzled on three-point attempts, shooting 4 for 4, while the rest of the Scarlet Knights were just as hot with an 8-for-10 effort from outside the arc in the half.

Essence Carson also finished in double figures for Rutgers with 15 points.

Carson had to leave the game, suffering from a cramp in her right leg with 13 minutes, 22 seconds left in the second half and the Scarlet Knights comfortably ahead, 41-27.

"I'm all fine and dandy now," Carson said afterward. "Walking around and running on it. So I'll definitely be ready for Tuesday."

Rutgers quickly drove to a 12-2 lead to the delight of the Scarlet Knights' portion of the crowd, including Gov. Corzine, Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano and men's basketball coach Fred Hill.

A three-pointer by Carson with 8:36 left in the first half made it 23-9, and the differential kept growing.

The victory continues the incredible Rutgers story of a season that began with a 2-4 record, including a lopsided 85-45 loss to Duke on Dec. 4 in Piscataway, N.J.

"Wow," Stringer said. "That's the best word to describe what's happening here.

"We had an opportunity to play before great crowds and against the No. 1 team [Duke] and No. 2 team [Connecticut in the Big East title game] in the country. And some of the most difficult situations. How could [that] be any more intimidating than this opportunity?"

It will be Rutgers' first championship contest, but Stringer has been there once before with Cheyney State, losing to Louisiana Tech in the first NCAA championship in 1982 in Norfolk, Va.

Tennessee 56, North Carolina 50 - With Candace Parker making the biggest steal, Tennessee sneaked back into the NCAA championship.

Parker wrestled the ball away from North Carolina's Alex Miller in the final minute and the Vols rallied to beat the Tar Heels, setting up the title date with Rutgers.

The Volunteers (33-3) set a Final Four record with 20 steals and outscored the Tar Heels by 20-2 over the final 8:08 to earn their 12th trip to the title game - but only their first since 1998.

It was sweet revenge for Tennessee, which had lost the Cleveland Regional final on the same floor to the Tar Heels one year ago.

Parker finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Nicky Anosike added 14 points, none bigger than her layup with 2:04 left when Tennessee, down 48-36 with 8:18 to play, finally caught the Tar Heels at 50-all.

All-American Ivory Latta finished with 13 points but missed three three-pointers in 1:15 as North Carolina (34-4) was unable to pull it out.

In the Tar Heels' last 15 possessions, they scored just two points, missed all eight field-goal tries and had seven turnovers.


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

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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