By Mel Greenberg
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Forgive No. 19 Pittsburgh for the Panthers acting like they were the underdogs in beating unranked Rutgers, 61-53, in overtime Tuesday night in a Big East contest at the Louis A. Brown Athletic Center.
Winning here was a brand new experience for the Panthers (18-4, 8-2) who were 0-for-12 in this building against the Scarlet Knights (13-9, 5-6).
The triumph also broke an overall 13-game losing streak dating back to Jan. 6, 1998.
Furthermore, it took an unlikely player to help the Panthers gain their unlikely achievement.
Sophronia Sallard, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who had been averaging six points a game, reached a career-high with 20 point on a night in which teammate and all-American candidate Shavonte Zellous needed two halves to get to double digits and finish with 15 points.
“We have a bad habit of recognizing the people who do well,” Rutgers coach said about stopping an opponent’s top player while others break free. “And then forget about the other ones. So maybe we should talk about filling in the blanks.”
There certainly were blanks to talk about on the final box score. Pittsburgh overcame not going to the foul line (0-for-0) in regulation, while Rutgers’ outside shooting was a dismal 0-for-10 on three-point attempts. The Scarlet Knights, incidentally, were 11-for-16 on free throw attempts.
But for Pittsburgh coach Agnus Berenato, who grew up in South Jersey, the night was about erasing that string of losses in the series, although she is only in her sixth season with the Panthers.
“I just thought our team never gave up and just kept believing,” Berenato said. “I cannot tell you how much I want my team to enjoy this victory tonight. It’s a great win. We have so much respect for this Rutgers program and Rutgers tradition.”
The Panthers rallied from an eight-point deficit with less than nine minutes in the game and Sallard’s jumper with 1:01 left in regulation tied the score at 45-45, forcing the extra period.
The overtime was all-Pittsburgh, which included two timely three-pointers from Shayla Scott to provide a cushion as the Panthers pulled away.
Scott finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds, while Taneisha Harrison also scored in double figures for Pittsburgh with 12 points.
Epiphanny Prince scored 21 points in 45 minutes for Rutgers and was distraught enough over the loss to leave the media room in tears before the player-interview session concluded.
Senior center Kia Vaughn had 11 points.
Unlike two seasons ago when Rutgers at this point in time had begun to roll from an awful start to march to the NCAA title game, Vaughn noted not all of her teammates are feeling the urgency of needing a similar hot finish.
“I don’t know what’s going on, everyone’s not on high alert, we’re not moving fast, we’re moving a little bit too slow,” Vaughn said. “It could be a variety of different things – whether it’s the freshmen not picking it up fast enough, us not having extra people off the bench – you got (Brittany) Ray and Piph playing 45 minutes, nobody coming in off the bench.
“It’s not good,” she said. “We have to be a team and right now we’re not a team.”
Stringer indicated reinforcements are in short supply for now.
“Those people who were not in the game, weren’t going to be able to do anything – trust me,” she said.
Complicating all this is that Rutgers will be a host site for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament whether or not the Scarlet Knights make the field as an at-large entry.
Rutgers still has a nonconference game Sunday game at No. 11 Maryland and a season-ending encounter with top-ranked Connecticut. And there is also the Big East tournament, itself, where at least one more loss is looming, although it would be less painful if it occurred deep in the playoffs.
The Scarlet Knights’ problem is not as much as the wheels coming off as the wheels seem unable to be assembled.
Needless to say, Stringer is not happy about a team that began the season with five McDonald’s High School All-Americans – one has since transferred – who were expected to see some extra playing time Wednesday night when Rutgers is right back in the building to play SUNY-Farmingdale, a Division III school recently added to the schedule.
“Right now for me coming right back (for the game,),” Stringer said. “I don’t think you’re going to see me tomorrow. Because it is not going to get better.”