(The Guru’s Cut for those who like something more lengthy than print allows)
By Mel Greenberg
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - A season of aggravation has suddenly turned sweet for the Rutgers women’s basketball team.
The seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights delighted a home crowd of 3,348 in the Louis A. Brown Athletic Center Monday night, roaring to a 22-4 start and eventual 80-52 victory over No. 2 Auburn in the second round of the Oklahoma City Regional.
It was Rutgers’ first win over a high-profile opponent this season, sending the Scarlet Knights (21-12) on to the Sweet 16 for the fifth straight time. The Scarlet Knights had been 1-9 against nationally-ranked opponents.
Junior guard Epiphanny Prince, who has had to carry Rutgers on many nights, scored a game-high 27 points. But seniors Heather Zurich and Kia Vaughn in their final home game also contributed with Zurich shooting 5-of-12 from the field in the first half to get all 12 of her points out of the backcourt. Vaughn in the post finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
“Our two seniors had not known anything other than the Sweet 16, and to go out with anything less than that in their senior year would have been a disservice,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “They stepped up big time.”
Brittany Ray also was in double figures with 12 points, while Wilmington’s Khadijah Rushdan ran an excellent floor game with nine points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
Auburn’s DeWanna Bonner scored 17 points and Whitney Boddie scored 10.
The Tigers (30-4) were regular season champions of the Southeastern Conference and had reached as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press women’s poll in early February before finishing No. 8.
“Rutgers was outstanding, that was best basketball we’ve seen them play,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “I fully expect them to get to the Final Four. I’m not putting pressure on them, but they are good enough to get there.”
A month ago even Stringer began to have doubts whether her team, which was still seeking its identity, could make the NCAA field.
Now Rutgers has a chance to advance to at least the Elite Eight in the wake of sixth-seeded Purdue’s upset of No. 3 North Carolina, 85-70, Monday night in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Scarlet Knights will play the Boilermakers Sunday night in Oklahoma City.
“Most people know that this has been my most frustrating year of coaching, period, end of discussion,” Stringer said. “I have a headache when I think about it.
“I thought Heather was the X-factor. She and Kia made up their minds if they were going to go out, they were going to go out winners.”
The only moments of concern Monday night occurred early in the second half when Auburn crept within 10 points of Rutgers at 46-36 with 15 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game.
The Tigers’ rally brought painful memories of Rutgers’ 55-51 loss here to Tennessee on Jan. 3 after the Scarlet Knights held a 33-13 lead at halftime.
But there was no letdown last night especially after Ray responded with a critical three-point shot that launched a 16-4 run to seal the victory.
“It was huge,” Stringer said of Ray’s trey. “I knew that shot broke
Auburn’s) back and then there was no question in my mind that Epiphanny was going to make sure we would execute.”
Rutgers’ performance Monday night recalled the Scarlet Knights’ run to the Final Four and title game two years ago. They struggled early in the season but began turning things around near the end of January.
The current edition has taken longer but if Monday was a sign of things to come this weekend, it could make life interesting for Stringer in the near future.
A first-time nominee to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Stringer’s fate is currently being considered along with Michael Jordan, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and the other candidates for the induction class of 2009.
The winners are scheduled to be introduced at the men’s Final Four the Monday before the title game.
“If Vivian gets elected and her team is in the Women’s Final Four, obviously she will have to stay in St. Louis,” a source with the Hall recently said.
At the time of the discussion, the conflict was considered far-fetched, given Rutgers’ inconsistency.
After Monday night, however, that conflict is just two Rutgers wins from becoming reality.