Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Vols and Scarlet Knights ready to let their stars shine

The last time the Tennessee and Rutgers women's basketball teams met, each had an incomplete cast.

When the teams collide tonight at the Liacouras Center in the NCAA Philadelphia Regional final, each will rely on a star unable to make headlines in the first encounter.

The winner tonight advances to the Final Four, to be played Sunday and next Tuesday in Indianapolis. Tonight's tip-off is scheduled for 9 o'clock.

On Dec. 29, when Rutgers defeated Tennessee, 65-51, in Piscataway, N.J., the Scarlet Knights made do without guard Cappie Pondexter, who was not at full strength.

Pondexter, the team's leading scorer, was still rounding into shape after sitting out the early season for personal reasons. She had just one point in that game in 15 minutes, shooting 0 for 5 from the field.

The Vols suffered without defensive standout Loree Moore, who sat out six games following a tonsillectomy.

Act II provides more intrigue and drama.

Yesterday, Tennessee players said they had no problem saying which team would enjoy the bigger boost.

"We definitely have the bigger jolt with Loree," forward Shyra Ely said. "That will create a lot of trouble for them... . I think [her defense] will disrupt them."

Just ask Texas Tech's Erin Grant.

Moore, a 5-foot-9 senior, threw the steady guard off-balance in the regional semifinal Sunday at the Liacouras Center. Moore flustered Grant into a season high of six turnovers while limiting her to five assists.

In Tennessee's 75-59 win, Moore also contributed eight rebounds, nine points and three steals. She has averaged 2.3 steals and 8.3 points through the postseason.

Moore knows what she needs to do tonight: more of the same.

"I'm very excited," she said. "I was hoping we would get the chance to play them." Sitting out "really drove me."

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said she noticed Moore's absence in the teams' regular-season meeting.

"Loree Moore is a phenomenal point guard," Stringer said. "Obviously, the team was disoriented."

In Pondexter, the Knights have a player who can make teams dizzy.

The speedy senior is a headache to defend off the dribble; she is averaging 13.9 points per game. Pondexter had 24 points Sunday in a 64-58 semifinal win over Ohio State

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said Rutgers is one of the most athletic teams she has seen all season. It will take big defensive stoppers like Moore and freshman Alexis Hornbuckle to slow down Pondexter and the Knights.

"I think Loree Moore's presence will be vital to our execution," Summitt said.

While Moore takes care of the Vols' defense, Ely - the team's only other starting senior - takes care of the offense.

Ely played shooting guard earlier this season, but Summitt surmised that she would be more effective as a power forward.

That showed against Texas Tech. Ely, taking inside passes and dominating the paint, scored 23 points.

"A lot of teams think I don't like physical games, which is not true," she said.

Rutgers knows Ely is dangerous.

"She's strong and she's athletic," forward Michelle Campbell said.

Rutgers is known for its intense defense, which is a good thing, because beating third-ranked Tennessee twice in a season is no easy task.

Stringer said defeating Tennessee was ninth-ranked Rutgers' defining regular-season moment.

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