Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rutgers, Tennessee playing with different lineups from first meeting

PHILADELPHIA -- Rutgers has something few teams that have played Tennessee in the postseason have been able to brag about: a regular-season blowout win against the Lady Vols.

Now comes the hard part for the Scarlet Knights -- trying to repeat the feat when it matters most. The rematch comes Tuesday night in the Philadelphia Regional for the right to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

``We're at least going into that game knowing we can win and we don't have to guess about what we have to do,'' Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said Monday.

The Scarlet Knights not only won that Dec. 29 game 65-51, they embarrassed top-seeded Tennessee (29-4). The 51 points tied for the second-fewest scored by the Lady Vols in a game, and their 16 first-half points were two points shy of Tennessee's record low.

Rutgers (28-6) hasn't forgotten that euphoric feeling. It started a run of three straight wins against top 10 teams and propelled the third-seeded Scarlet Knights into the national spotlight. Stringer called the win a ``defining moment.''

But this isn't December and both lineups have been overhauled.

``We did beat Tennessee rather handily, but this is not the same Tennessee team,'' Stringer said. ``But we did win so we know we are capable.''

The Rutgers' loss was the third in eight games for the Lady Vols, which probably seemed like a five-game losing streak for most teams. The Lady Vols were reeling from a heralded freshman class that was going down, one season-ending knee injury at a time.

Candace Parker and Alex Fuller never played and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood had her season shortened because of tendinitis in the knee. Sophomore Sidney Spencer also saw her season end with a torn knee ligament.

The biggest blow was losing Parker, the first woman to win the dunk contest at the McDonald's High School All-American game. Coach Pat Summitt wanted to run a triple-post offense around Parker, and held out hope she would return sometime in December.

Instead, Parker never made it back and the Vols -- who had three losses before January for the first time since the 1996-97 season -- were forced to realize they had to win with only eight or nine players.

``I think it really brought our team together,'' said Summitt, who has 881 career wins. ``I think that adversity hit at a time that they had to make a decision as a basketball team and with their leadership as to how they were going to handle it. It made them much more determined and focused.''

Summitt also realized she had to make some lineup changes. Most notably, Shyra Ely shifted from small forward to power forward and Tennessee's offense started clicking.

``I feel really natural and comfortable there,'' Ely said. ``I've always played the post. I really don't regret playing the three because it made me a better player all around. But the four is my bread and butter.''

The Lady Vols also got back Loree Moore, their star point guard who missed six games in December and early January after undergoing a tonsillectomy. One of those games was against Rutgers.

``It was kind of hoping we'd get the chance to play them,'' Moore said, smiling.

So was Rutgers' All-American honorable mention Cappie Pondexter. Pondexter, the team's leading scorer the last two years, made her season debut against the Lady Vols after missing the season's first eight games for personal reasons. She made little impact, scoring one point in 15 minutes.

Pondexter's role has grown and she leads the Scarlet Knights with 23.7 points in the NCAA tournament.

``She made it very easy for me and us as coaches to bring her in the fold,'' Stringer said.

Stringer said it would have been easy for the Scarlet Knights to stand around and wait for Pondexter to take over. Instead, they stuck with the same team ball they played before Pondexter's return.

``She's still not 100 percent of the player I know she is,'' Stringer said, getting giggles from her players. ``I guess I would think she's about 65 percent. Cappie has far more in her than what we've seen.''

Rutgers, the only three seed still playing in the tournament, already beat Temple and Ohio State -- two teams they lost to during the regular season. Now, the Scarlet Knights are facing a team looking for a little revenge.

``There's definitely an incentive because we know how we felt after we lost that game,'' said Tennessee's Nicky Anosike. ``It was just a horrible feeling and we don't ever want to feel it again.''

No comments: