Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rutgers-Tennessee Preview

(3) Rutgers (28-6) vs. (1) Tennessee (29-4)
Game Info: 9:00 pm EST Tue Mar 29, 2005
Philadelphia Region - Liacouras Center (Philadelphia, PA)

Rutgers will try to duplicate a dominant performance against the most successful program in women's college basketball to gain the second Final Four berth in school history.

The third-seeded Scarlet Knights face top-seeded Tennessee in the rematch of a lopsided regular-season meeting with much more at stake in the Philadelphia Regional final.

Rutgers played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, beating Tennessee, Texas and LSU in an eight-day stretch earlier this season. The Scarlet Knights started that run with what may have been their best effort of the season, a 65-51 victory over the Lady Vols on Dec. 29 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Freshman Matee Ajavon scored 20 points and Essence Carson added 14 as Rutgers built a 17-point halftime lead and never looked back. Tennessee shot just under 28 percent from the field.

``Even though we beat Tennessee, they are a great team and playing a lot better,'' Rutgers senior Chelsea Newton said. ``They are not the same team that came to the RAC.''

The 51 points matched the second-fewest ever scored by the Lady Vols, and the 16 first-half points were two shy of the their record low set in 1996.

It also marked Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer's first win in six tries over Tennessee since taking over the Scarlet Knights in 1995.

``We were never in that game, so I certainly respect her team,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said of her Hall of Fame counterpart.

Rutgers was able to prevail three months ago despite a poor effort from Cappie Pondexter, who was making her season debut after missing eight games due to personal reasons. Pondexter missed all five shots and scored one point in 15 minutes off the bench.

The 5-foot-9 senior is playing at a different level now. Pondexter is averaging 23.7 points in the NCAA tournament, including a 24-point performance in Sunday's 64-58 win over second-seeded Ohio State.

``Words really can't describe how I feel,'' Pondexter said. ``Believe me, I'm definitely happy, but we have to play Tennessee next. We're focused.''

Rutgers' only Final Four appearance ended with a national semifinal loss to Tennessee in 2000. The Knights are 0-3 against the Lady Vols in NCAA tournament play.

Tennessee enters on an 11-game winning streak as it seeks its fourth straight Final Four berth and 16th overall. The Lady Vols have not won the title since 1998, losing to Connecticut in the championship game each of the last two seasons.

With the three-time defending champion Huskies eliminated, the Lady Vols believe they can return to the top.

``I think we're one of the teams that can win a championship,'' Summitt said.

Tennessee senior forward Shyra Ely is one game away from fulfilling a dream. The Indianapolis native, who is averaging a team-high 14.7 points, is hoping to end her career by playing in the Final Four in her hometown.

``Playing in the Final Four would be awesome, and just to be in Indianapolis makes it that much better,'' Ely said.

Ely scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting as Tennessee advanced with a 75-59 win over Texas Tech on Sunday. She is averaging 17 points in three NCAA games.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Rutgers - F Carson (6.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F Michelle Campbell (11.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), G Newton (9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), G Ajavon (12.4 ppg, 3.4 apg), G Pondexter (14.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg). Tennessee - F Ely (14.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg), F Alexis Hornbuckle (8.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg), C Nicky Anosike (6.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), G Shanna Zolman (12.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg), G Loree Moore (5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg).

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Rutgers - At-large berth, Big East; beat No. 14 Hartford 62-37, first round; beat No. 6 Temple 61-54, second round; beat No. 2 Ohio State 64-58, regional semifinals. Tennessee - Automatic bid, Southeastern Conference tournament champion; beat No. 16 Western Carolina 94-43, first round; beat No. 9 Purdue 75-54, second round; beat No. 4 Texas Tech 75-59, regional semifinals.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Rutgers - 22-15, 16 years. Tennessee - 88-17, 24 years.

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