Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Old friends Summitt, Stringer face off

When Tennessee and Rutgers meet tonight in the Philadelphia Regional final of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, it will be business as usual for Pat Summitt.

Summitt, who has an NCAA-record 881 victories, has coached Tennessee to six national championships. Her Vols are 29-4 and seeded No. 1 in the regional.

It will be a much tougher business for Tennessee, however, against C. Vivian Stringer's Rutgers squad. Stringer, who has 723 career wins, has rebuilt her Scarlet Knights from the ashes of a 9-20 season in 2002. This year's team is 28-6 and seeded third.

The coaches are longtime friends. But a berth in the Final Four is at stake in this game, scheduled for 9 p.m. at Temple University's Liacouras Center.

The Scarlet Knights made their first Final Four appearance five years ago at the Wachovia Center against Tennessee, which eliminated Stringer's team in the semifinals.

If Rutgers is to make its second Final Four trip, it will have to prevail with its speed and tenacious defense against Tennessee with its inside strength.

"They've always had strong, physical posts," Stringer said of the Vols.

During yesterday's news conferences, the coaches discussed their long history with each other, which includes stops for Stringer at Cheyney and Iowa before moving to Rutgers in summer 1995.

"I don't particularly like to shop with her," Summitt said with a smile. "I like to run in a store, look around, and go, 'I want this, this and this.' And, of course, Vivian takes her time.

"If we are trying on shoes, she would try on 12 pair, I would try on two. She has incredible patience; I have none," Summitt said. "We go way back... . She is one of my dearest friends in the profession."

Stringer recalled meeting Summitt at a USA Basketball tryout camp more than two decades ago and talked about competing against Tennessee with different programs since then.

"It was a long time ago. A looong time ago," Stringer said of her first encounter with Summitt.

"We've had many battles over the years. She and I are, personally, very good friends as well," Stringer said. "I like that, because I think we probably embody what it means to be great competitors - go after one another but be respectful and care about each other's families and want to do things together."

In 1993, Stringer led Iowa to a 72-56 win at home over Tennessee in the Midwest Regional final to reach a Final Four for the second time.

In 1982, she coached Cheyney to the first Final Four in NCAA history; her Wolves lost to Louisiana Tech in the title game.

In December, after Rutgers shocked then-No. 8 Tennessee, 65-51, at home in Piscataway, N.J., Summitt called friends, gushing over how athletic and physical the Scarlet Knights had become.

"It was like we were standing," Summitt told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "The wheels came off."

Stringer's team then beat two more top-10 teams, including then-No. 1 Louisiana State, to complete an eight-day trifecta that propelled Rutgers from the bottom of the Associated Press rankings into the top five.

Vols senior point guard Loree Moore came back a week later, after missing the Rutgers game because of a tonsillectomy, and Tennessee has become more of its old powerful self since then.

The last Tennessee-Rutgers game also marked the return of Scarlet Knights all-American point guard Cappie Pondexter, who missed the early part of the season for undisclosed personal reasons.

"The team actually benefited from Cappie's absence, because they could not look to the bench," Stringer said of the Knights' play without their star performer.

The instant impact of freshmen Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson also helped turn the team into a national-title contender.

The seniors, particularly Chelsea Newton, have taken pride in Rutgers' resurgence from that 9-20 season in 2001-02, when they were newcomers. Injuries also helped bring that team down.

With the Scarlet Knights back in the national limelight, Stringer thinks that her team's confidence is the key to victory.

"I always believed if we believed in ourselves that we could do far more damage than what most people realized," Stringer said. "Perhaps this team understands that our greatest fear is ourselves, our own minds, what we're thinking.

"Fortunately for us, we've played the toughest teams in the country; we know it's just a matter of technically executing."

No comments: