Scarlet Knights ready for their rendezvous

The Rutgers women are sizing up the tough Tenn. squad they meet tonight, along with their "destiny."

Posted: April 03, 2007

CLEVELAND - Rutgers has made the most of second chances this season, especially in the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

During the Scarlet Knights' run, they have avenged a lopsided loss to Duke, a loss to DePaul and two one-sided setbacks to Connecticut. Now Rutgers (27-8) goes into tonight's championship game against a Tennessee squad (33-3) that ended its title hopes in the same Quicken Loans Arena a year ago in the Sweet 16.

"Coach [C. Vivian] Stringer keeps saying we're a team of destiny," sophomore forward Heather Zurich said yesterday. "Everything we're noticing, we're like, 'Oh my God, this is just meant to be.' "

Rutgers' journey from a 2-4 start to tonight's title game has become the talk of the campus, especially after Sunday night's 59-35 triumph over Louisiana State.

Football coach Greg Schiano, men's basketball coach Fred Hill and Gov. Corzine are leading the delegation of Rutgers fans in Cleveland, although it also should be noted that Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl is with the Volunteers' contingent.

In Sunday's victory, Rutgers succeeded because of the way the Scarlet Knights' two 6-foot-4 centers - Kia Vaughn and freshman reserve Rashidat Junaid of Camden Catholic - were able to deny junior all-American Sylvia Fowles the ball. The 6-6 star was held to just five points.

To beat Tennessee tonight, however, the Scarlet Knights must figure out a way to contain 6-4 sophomore Candace Parker, the top player in the collegiate game, who can play every position.

"She can basically do everything," said Scarlet Knights junior guard Matee Ajavon, who lit up LSU in the first half Sunday with four three-pointers on four shots. "We're going to have to adjust a couple of things and we're definitely going to have to change up our game plan from any other team because she is so versatile.

"You can't even really focus on Candace Parker. She has a complete team around her."

Tennessee advanced with a 56-50 win over North Carolina as the Vols rallied from a 12-point deficit with 8 minutes, 18 seconds left and went on a 20-2 run down the stretch.

Parker had 14 points and 13 rebounds, even though she only played eight minutes of the first half because of foul trouble.

"I got to see briefly on the highlights of the LSU game, how they collapsed on Sylvia Fowles and really wanted to make other people beat them," Parker said of Rutgers.

"We played one of the toughest schedules in the country and we have seen a lot of different looks."

North Carolina had 29 turnovers in the loss, but Rutgers has more ballhandlers and has not been sloppy with Essence Carson, Ajavon, Zurich and Epiphanny Prince controlling the flow.

Prince and Tennessee guard Shannon Bobbitt, incidentally, were high school teammates in New York.

"It's going to be a team effort," Carson said of defending Parker. "Right now, this is how we got here: playing as a team. And we'll leave this tournament playing as a team. We can't abandon something that has gotten us this far. To do that would make a fool of us."

Carson also conceded Tennessee's size advantage. "I wish we had their size - it would make our jobs easier - but we're not going to grow six inches overnight."

Tennessee forward Sidney Spencer is 6-3, and the Vols also have 6-4 Nicky Anosike off the bench.

It might help Rutgers if Tennessee repeats its Sunday shooting slump. The Vols were 17 of 63 from the field against the Tar Heels.


Rutgers' Road to the NCAA Final

It is no fluke that the Rutgers women's basketball team is playing in tonight's NCAA title game against Tennessee. Its season has had quite a turnaround from its unremarkable 2-4 record to start the season, including a devastating 85-45 rout by Duke at home on Dec. 4 for coach C. Vivian Stringer's worst loss since taking over the program for the 1995-96 season.

National semifinal: Beat LSU, 59-35, holding all-American center Sylvia Fowles to five points and LSU to the fewest points in Final Four history.

Regional final: Beat Arizona State, 64-45, holding Sun Devils and scoring leader Emily Westerberg (six points) to season lows.

Regional semifinal: Beat tournament top-seed Duke, 53-52, with freshman Epiphanny Prince going coast-to-coast with the winning basket. The game ends in bizarre fashion when Blue Devils all-American point guard Lindsay Harding misses two foul shots with 0.1 seconds on clock. Harding, who previously made a steal on an inbounds pass to keep Duke's hopes alive, also is held to five points and commits five turnovers.

Second round: Beat Michigan State, 70-57, on Spartans' home court in East Lansing. Kia Vaughn, a 6-foot-4 sophomore center, dominates inside with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots against 6-9 freshman center Allyssa DeHaan, who was held to six points, well below her 12.5 average.

Opening round: Easily beat East Carolina, 77-34, as junior guard Matee Ajavon sets stage for personal tournament run with 20 points and five assists.

Big East Final: Stun favorite Connecticut, 55-47, on Huskies' second home court in Hartford, a week after having lost to UConn at home, 70-44.


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

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