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Strong in heart

Rutgers vows to use final loss as 2007-08 motivation

Posted: Wednesday April 4, 2007 1:14AM; Updated: Wednesday April 4, 2007 9:50AM
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Epiphanny Prince and the Scarlett Knights came up one win short in the quest for the school's first basketball championship.
Epiphanny Prince and the Scarlett Knights came up one win short in the quest for the school's first basketball championship.
Bill Frakes/SI
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CLEVELAND -- The team that made so much noise in the NCAA tournament was silenced Tuesday. Fourth-seeded Rutgers, which knocked off top-seeded Duke and third-seeded Arizona and LSU, just didn't have another upset in it.

The fight and intensity the Scarlet Knights showed while scratching and clawing their way through the tournament seemed to be missing during their first NCAA title game. Tennessee had plenty of both in the 59-46 win.

Outsized at nearly every position, Rutgers couldn't compete with Tennessee's length and aggression on the boards. The Lady Vols out-rebounded Rutgers 42-34 and scored 22 second-chance points on their way to winning their seventh national championship.

As Tennessee celebrated under a sea of confetti, the Scarlet Knights fought back tears in their locker room.

"We didn't rebound well," sophomore Heather Zurich said. "They beat us to every loose ball. We didn't hit good shots. You know, the shots aren't always going to fall, but we could have done more. We just didn't play with the heart today that we had all season."

"We had it," sophomore Kia Vaughn whispered. "We were there."

The Scarlet Knights might not have won the national title that has eluded head coach C. Vivian Stringer for 36 seasons, but the heart Zurich mentioned enabled them to do more than many expected.

Ten games into the season, Rutgers looked nothing like a team that started out at No. 12 in the rankings. They were 5-5 and had been embarrassed in a 40-point loss to Duke.

They were adjusting to life without Cappie Pondexter. A first-round WNBA draft pick last year, Pondexter accounted for one-third of the team's points. They were without point guard Matee Ajavon, who was recovering from off-season leg surgery. They were trying to work five freshmen into the mix, including Epiphanny Prince, who averaged 41.2 points per game as a high school senior.

"They didn't buy into defense," Vaughn said. "They were more offense oriented. They weren't aware it could make or break a team."

It definitely took a toll on the Scarlet Knights.

Opponents were knocking down shots at an alarming rate, hitting 42 percent from the field through the first 10 games. The Scarlet Knights were giving up 70 points a game. Not exactly the numbers you'd expect from a unit that led the Big East and ranked second in the nation in defense the previous season.

It certainly wasn't what Stringer expected. That's why she pulled the unexpected.

Stringer locked her team out of its locker room and took away all the perks. No more couches to lounge on. No more televisions. No more laundry service. They drew laughs at Michigan State because of their mismatched practice uniforms.

It was a month before the Scarlet Knights earned back their goodies.

"I didn't know how to react," Prince said. "I was pretty mad. But, in the end, it was good because it brought us closer together."

And it made them better. Rutgers buckled down on defense and went on to lose just three more games before Tuesday night. The title game loss is sure to be handled in the same manner as all the other challenges Rutgers faced this season.

"It's going to make us stronger as a whole," Vaughn said. "When we start off [next season], we're going to be stronger than we were this year because we have more in our heart."