Monday, April 02, 2007

Rutgers reaches 1st national title game

CLEVELAND - C. Vivian Stringer is just one win away from that elusive championship she's been chasing for 25 years, with a Rutgers team even she didn't believe would make a run to the Final Four.

Rutgers' improbable tournament continued with a dominating 59-35 victory over LSU on Sunday night in a national semifinal that earned the Scarlet Knights their first trip to the championship game.

"We're not supposed to be here, but that's all right," Stringer said. "This team isn't looking for accolades. We got none. We just play together as a team."

The Scarlet Knights have a chance to make history for a school that last earned an NCAA team championship in 1949 — sharing a fencing title with Army. Rutgers will face Tennessee in the championship game on Tuesday night. The Lady Vols beat the Tar Heels 56-50.

"It's a dream come true," Stringer said. "Work hard, get some rest and see what we can do in this next one."

Swarming defense and a hot touch behind the arc blew out LSU, which scored the fewest points ever in the Final Four — Louisiana Tech had 44 vs. Tennessee in '87 title game.

Matee Ajavon scored 16 points and hit four 3-pointers to help Rutgers build an insurmountable first-half lead.

The Scarlet Knights (27-8) hounded 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles, who appeared aggravated by the relentless defenders. She was held to five points, which tied a season low, and seven rebounds.

"Not taking anything from Rutgers' defense, but I don't feel that they had to do much," Fowles said. "I just think I had a sluggish game from the get-go."

The Lady Tigers (30-8) ended a surprising tournament run behind acting head coach Bob Starkey, who was thrust into the job when coach Pokey Chatman abruptly resigned March 7 amid allegations of improper conduct with one or more former players.

"I did tell the team that if I never coached again that I was thrilled that this was the last team I coached," Starkey said.

With five freshmen on the roster, the Scarlet Knights started the season 2-4. Frustrated with the team's poor defensive play, Stringer took away the team's locker room privileges last December for a month.

Now, they are the third No. 4 seed to reach the championship.

In the closing minutes of Sunday's game, the Rutgers crowd chanted Stringer's initials "C-V-S" as she high-fived an assistant. After the final buzzer, the entire staff hugged Stringer, back in the title game 25 years after she took Cheyney there.

"Wow. That's the best word to describe what happened here," Stringer said. "We talked about believing in what we know. No one expected us to be here, but these players believe in themselves. We focused on the defense. We didn't read into the hype.

"Guess we'll see all you guys here on Tuesday."

She wasn't the only one wowed by the team. Rutgers had quite the entourage, including New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine and Scarlet Knights football coach Greg Schiano.

"It's awesome. What Vivian and her team have done is just tremendous," said Schiano, whose team did its part to boost Rutgers pride with a top-10 ranking and a first-ever bowl win last season.

Essence Carson helped set the tone for Sunday's celebration, scoring 15 points before leaving with leg cramps in the second half. She hit three 3-pointers, and Rutgers was 10-of-20 from behind the arc, but only 20-of-51 overall.

"It feels great to have gotten this far. But we can't give up now. Why just settle for this?" Carson said. "We came from nothing and built our foundation."

LSU struggled from the opening whistle. Kia Vaughn won the tip after Fowles appeared unready and barely got off the ground.

Ajavon hit a 3-pointer, and Rutgers broke out to a 12-2 lead in the first 5 minutes, sending the Rutgers cheering section to its feet.

Fowles was held to 1-for-4 shooting over that span and didn't take another shot until the half's closing seconds. A defender knocked her headband askew on the play and she missed, then screamed out in anger as she ran down the court.

"She was a little frustrated," Ajavon said. "It was just a defensive effort. ... We're here to stay."

Rutgers double- and triple-teamed Fowles, with Vaughn getting help from Heather Zurich.

"I tried to keep her as far away from the basket as I could," Vaughn said.

When Vaughn got her second foul midway through the first half, it seemed Fowles might get her chances after all.

But freshman Rashidat Junaid held her own against Fowles. With three freshman on the floor, Rutgers increased its lead to 21 on another Ajavon 3-pointer late in the first half.

LSU went right to Fowles on the second half's first possession, and she scored easily. But nothing else came easy for Fowles on an off night. Through the 37 previous games, she had averaged 17.2 points and 12.7 rebounds.

Erica White scored nine points to lead LSU, which set Final Four lows for field goal percentage (26.4) and fewest field goals (14).

"We didn't play our best tonight, and Rutgers shot the ball extremely well. And that's what happened here tonight and nothing else," White said. "We just had a bad game, and it happened at the worst possible time. But I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of."

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