Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rutgers, Tennessee ready for rematch with Final Four at stake

PHILADELPHIA -- Rutgers had nearly three months to boast about its bold-print victory against Tennessee. After all, few teams beat the Lady Vols, much less blow them out.

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.

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

The Scarlet Knights not only won that game 65-51 on Dec. 29, 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.''

``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.

Maybe, but Rutgers' preparation is a bit more complicated than just watching game film. Tennessee's lineup was overhauled after the loss, which was the third one in eight games for the Lady Vols. Now the Lady Vols are riding an 11-game winning streak into their 20th regional final.

``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.''

In the first game, the Lady Vols played without start point Loree Moore, who missed six games in December and early January after undergoing a tonsillectomy.

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

Forward Sidney Spencer was a starter until her season ended with a torn knee ligament. Anosike was just a reserve and Tye Fluker was the starting center. Now the roles are reversed.

Shyra Ely also shifted from small forward to power forward and Tennessee's offense started clicking. Injuries that also derailed the seasons of two players in Tennessee's heralded freshman class left the Lady Vols with only eight or nine true contributing players.

``I think it really brought our team together,'' said coach Pat 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.''

Rutgers -- just 9-20 two years ago -- also hopes for an offensive jolt this time around from 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 now she leads the Scarlet Knights with 23.7 points in the NCAA tournament.

``I think they embraced me and it was a real easy flow,'' Pondexter said. ``It was kind of like I was here all along. They worked with me because I wasn't really in great shape and I'm still not to this day.''

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 No. 3 seed still playing in the tournament, already beat Temple and Ohio State -- teams they lost to during the regular season. Now, the Scarlet Knights are the ones facing a team looking for a little revenge.

``Hopefully, we'll be better prepared, but they're stingy,'' Summitt said. ``They're tough.''

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