HARTFORD, Conn. - A dozen years ago, C. Vivian Stringer arrived at Rutgers with the aspiration of her team becoming "The Jewel of the East."
Last night, the Women's Basketball Hall of Famer finally claimed the Big East tournament tiara.
The Scarlet Knights shocked perennial conference ruler Connecticut, 55-47, by holding the Huskies scoreless for nearly the final eight minutes at the Hartford Civic Center.
Rutgers hit six straight foul shots in the closing minute to seal it. The Scarlet Knights (22-8) had experienced five previous tournament frustrations against the second-ranked Huskies (29-3).
Rutgers has come a long way from the beginning of the season, when Stringer's youthful squad had trouble embracing her defensive strategies.
Just over a week ago, Connecticut had embarrassed Stringer's bunch, 70-44, in Piscataway, N.J., as the Huskies finished the conference schedule unbeaten.
"Wow," Stringer said. "This is just so special. . . . We persevered, and I'm so proud of this team and each and every player who has gone through so much."
The Big East title gives Rutgers an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The draw will be announced Monday night at 8 on ESPN.
Essence Carson scored 15 points for Rutgers, while Matee Ajavon, the tournament MVP, added 11 points and Kia Vaughn 10.
"We definitely have grown," Carson said of her team's improvement. "Coach did a great job preparing us, both physically and mentally."
Charde Houston scored 12 points for the Huskies, who committed 17 turnovers against Rutgers' relentless defensive pressure. Renee Montgomery added 11 points, all in the first half. Kalana Greene grabbed 10 rebounds.
UConn joins Tennessee and top-ranked Duke as projected No. 1 regional seeds in the NCAA tournament who also lost in their conference tourneys.
All, however, will receive at-large bids. Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee are still likely to retain their No. 1 seeds.
"This time of year, if you're just not right, it happens," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
The Huskies were very much in the game when Houston hit a layup with 7 minutes, 56 seconds left in regulation for a 45-42 lead. Ajavon then hit a jump shot 20 seconds later to keep Rutgers within a point at 45-44.
The game remained scoreless for nearly the next four minutes until the Scarlet Knights took the lead, 47-45, on freshman Epiphanny Prince's three-pointer.
A layup by Myia McCurdy, another freshman, extended the lead to 49-45 with 3:15 to play. Connecticut, meanwhile, continued to miss shots and make turnovers.
"We did a lot of things tonight that unfortunately were uncharacteristic for us, that we hadn't done all year long," Auriemma said. "It seemed like we saved them all up for one night."
Contact staff writer Mel Greenberg at 215-854-5725 or email@example.com.