Winning Ugly Was Oh So Pretty For Rutgers

March 6, 2007

By Jeff Lippman


Jeff Lippman

Jeff is's lead women's basketball writer.
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HARTFORD, Ct. - When it was all said and done and the 2007 Big East Tournament came to an end, the team dancing at half court and cutting down the nets was the lesser of two evils.


It was a hard fought game on both ends, but the fact is, this wasn't a pretty game of basketball. When one team shoots 34.5 percent and the winning team shoots worse at 33 percent, it shows the game was won in the trenches.


For C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers, pretty is a meaningless term, whatever it was they played, they played Big East championship-caliber basketball for 40 minutes and came away with the biggest win in program history, as they defeated the Connecticut Huskies, the odds-on favorites and No. 2 team in the country, 55-47, in front of a stadium packed full of frantic Husky fans.


"Because I emphasize defense so much, most likely if a player comes off the bench they are coming in for defense," Stringer said after the game. "Defense ruled tonight."


While 9,755 people attended the hard-fought game, the Husky fans actually numbered closer to 9,735...there were at least 20, maybe 25 Rutgers faithful and they were boisterous when this one was over, that's for sure.


Although the game pit No. 1 vs. No. 2 as far as seeding, make no mistake, this is a major upset for the Knights.


After getting whooped by the Huskies at the RAC in Piscataway, N.J. at the end of February and taking into consideration that Connecticut has owned Rutgers in the Big East Tournament, the Scarlet Knight coach knows how meaningful this win is for her team.


"Wow, this is so special," Stringer said, clearly emotional but trying to hold her feelings back. "This is the first time I have been privileged to cut down the nets. It doesn't matter where we were going, but that we persevered and I am just so proud of my team."


Although Stringer gave the impression this was just another win, freshman guard Epiphanny Prince let the cat out of the bag when she admitted that their embattled coach was so excited for the victory that she came into the locker room in tears.


Even Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, the man the State of New Jersey has come to loathe, seemed strangely proud of the Rutgers squad.


"They have come to this tournament for five years and even had the best team some years and not won the tournament so I'm sure it was getting incredibly frustrating for them," a stoic and calm Auriemma said. "And to finally win it, and not just win it, but win it here, it has got to be the most rewarding feeling for them. I would think that is going to be a great bus ride home for them."


For as big a victory as this was for Rutgers, it wasn't a major loss for Connecticut. The Huskies will have to wait until Selection Monday to find out, but a No. 1 seed in the Hartford Regional makes the most sense.


It was obvious that Rutgers' defense frustrated Connecticut all night, getting their hands on many passes and never letting UConn out in transition where they excel. Sure, the Huskies didn't play at their usual level, but that seems to be an aberration in the mind of Auriemma.


"There were opportunities that we didn't take advantage of and mistakes that we made that they did take advantage of," the Hall of Fame coach said. "We did a lot of things tonight that are uncharacteristic for us. We hadn't done them all year long and we did them tonight. We saved them all up for one night and tonight was that night."


Should UConn make it to Cleveland and the Final Four, they will need more dominant post play out of their freshman center Tina Charles. Charles finished the game with eight points and just five rebounds in 30 minutes and found herself in early foul trouble.


"I'm not posting up aggressively like I should be," said Charles, a graduate of famed Bronx high school Christ the King.  "In the first half I was on the bench because I had dumb fouls and I think I probably could have helped the team more not on the bench."


What might be the understatement of the century rings true for the Huskies, who need Charles' presence to establish the post, allowing junior forward Charde Houston to do the most damage. Tonight, Houston was left to be the inside presence at times and because of that, finished with a team-leading 12 points and seven rebounds, but also fouled out and committed six turnovers.


It was the turnovers where Connecticut may have lost this game. Committing 17 errors to Rutgers' six, the Huskies were bothered by the Knight guards all night. Essence Carson and Epiphanny Prince finished with three and four steals, respectively.


"They were playing really aggressive," said Connecticut point guard Renee Montgomery. "They were trying to steal the ball at all times and they caught us off guard."


Carson, the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year, led the way for the Knights with 15 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to go with her three steals. It was Matee Ajavon, however, who took home tournament MVP honors and finished the night with 11 points on 4-of-22 shooting.


With the Big East crown, the first in Rutgers long history, they may have secured themselves the three seed in the NCAAs and will need to continue to learn if they have hopes of advancing through the tourney.


Connecticut, on the other hand, must forget about this one and concentrate on the things that helped make them 29-3 and finish a perfect regular season in the Big East.


As always, it was the ever-poetic Auriemma who summed up the loss best, saying, "This game doesn't have any bearing on the next game that we play. If you are a bad basketball program than you allow things like this to change who you are. We know who we are, we know what we are and we know what we are capable of doing and today doesn't change that one bit. All today does is make us runner-up in the tournament championship."


For C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers, they'll take that.



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