Rutgers heading back to UConn for opener

Scarlet Knights to face University of Hartford on Sunday


Staff Writer

The Rutgers women’s basketball team just can’t seem to put the state of Connecticut in its rearview mirror.

The Scarlet Knights were in the Nutmeg State just last week for the Big East Conference tournament, where they lost to host UConn 67-51 in the championship game Tuesday night at the Hartford Civic Center.

Just five days later, head coach C. Vivian Stringer and her team found out they’d be heading back to Connecticut for the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This time, however, Rutgers won’t be facing UConn. Instead, it will meet the University of Hartford. But the game will be played at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., on the campus and home court of — you guessed it — the UConn Huskies.

The end of last week’s Big East title game was marred by a much-publicized exchange, with Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter’s finger pointing in Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma’s face as the two teams shook hands. Pondexter and Stringer said Auriemma made an inappropriate comment to Pondexter in the second half, while the UConn coach claimed he was talking to a referee. An investigation was conducted and a Big East ruling cleared Auriemma of any wrongdoing.

But hard feelings remain, and now Rutgers is headed back to Connecticut.

The Scarlet Knights, 25-6 and ranked ninth in the country, are seeded third in the Philadelphia Region; while Hartford, 22-8 and champions of the America East Conference, is the 14th seed in the 16-team region.

And as if this plot needed any more twists, the Hawks are coached by Jen Rizzotti, a former UConn point guard who played for Auriemma and helped lead the Huskies to their first national championship in 1995.

Add it all up, and it kind of makes you wonder what the selection committee was thinking when it came up with this scenario.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see their thinking,” Stringer said after the tournament seedings were announced on TV Sunday at a pep rally at the Busch Campus Student Center attended by nearly 400 Rutgers fans. “After all, we just came back from there. There was a lot of controversy there, so why not send them there again? Who knows what they are thinking.

“Why don’t they send me down to Dallas, Texas [a first-round site in another region], where [people] couldn’t care less?”

But it didn’t take Stringer very long to put a positive spin on the whole situation.

“The fact that we are headed to Storrs is nice because it’s a short bus trip and we’ll be able to spend the week at home getting the heavy amount of our preparation done,” the three-time national coach of year said. “I want our team to be able to refocus and re-energize.

“Our fans will be there [in Storrs], and that means a lot,” she added. “Our kids have come to really appreciate the support our fans provide for us, so I’m happy that we’ll be able to look in the stands on Sunday and see a lot of red.”

Her players agreed.

“This is what we have worked for,” freshman guard Matee Ajavon said. “It’s definitely a plus that we are in our region and that our fans will be able to see us.”

“They’ve been great all year,” Pondexter added. “Our fans have definitely been an added bonus to our success, and it would be great to have them in Storrs.”

Even if that means playing in an otherwise hostile environment in the aftermath of the UConn controversy.

“I don’t really care too much about the fans’ reaction. My focus is on playing against Hartford,” Pondexter said. “We have spring break this week, and we’ll be focusing on execution, playing defense. My focus is to get past the second round. We’re a great team, and we have the talent and the determination to do that.”

“I’m sure we’ll hear boos, and there will be a lot of Connecticut fans there,” fellow senior guard Chelsea Newton said. “That’s all right. It’s motivation. If we do have a negative crowd, that’s OK. We know we’re important enough to get the boos. But it doesn’t matter, we’ll get ready to play.”

Going against a team coached by a former UConn player will mean even less support for Rutgers.

“If we can’t get over that little bit, we don’t deserve to win anything,” Stringer said.

Besides, Rizzotti only coaches Hartford; she doesn’t play for them. It will take a Herculean effort for the Hawks to play with the Scarlet Knights.

Hartford has lost to such teams as Maine, Stony Brook (N.Y.), Binghamton (N.Y.) and Albany. The one major college they played resulted in a 55-32 loss to UConn.

The only other common opponent the two teams have is Rider College, which Rutgers beat 90-42 in its season opener on Nov. 20, while Hartford beat the Broncs 57-46 on Dec. 22.

Hartford’s best hope to stay in the game against Rutgers is its defense. A low-scoring game may favor the Hawks, who have held their last seven opponents to 50 points or less.

That could be a tall order, however, against the Scarlet Knights, who are led by the 5-foot-9 Pondexter, a first-team All-Big East selection who is averaging 13.1 points per game. Ajavon, a second-team all-conference pick and the Big East Freshman of the Year, adds 12.8 points and team-high 3.3 assists a game.

Then there’s 6-2 junior forward Michelle Campbell, the Big East’s Most Improved Player and a third-team all-league selection, who’s scoring 11.6 points a game and leads the Knights with 5.8 rebounds a contest. Newton, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, rounds out a solid quartet with averages of 9.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game.

Most of all, however, Rutgers has experience. Eight letter winners, including three starters, return from last year’s NCAA tournament team that went 21-4, but lost in the opening round.

“Our focus is just to get further than we did the last couple of years,” Pondexter said. “I think this is a more determined and focused group. We want to get down to business.”

If the Scarlet Knights get by Hartford as expected, they would face the winner of No. 6 seed Temple (27-3) and No. 11 Louisiana Tech (20-9) in the second round next Tuesday. And if Rutgers wins its first two games and makes it to Philadelphia next week, No. 2 seed Ohio Sate (28-4) could be waiting for them.

Rutgers lost to both Temple (71-60 on Dec. 13) and Ohio State (52-50 on Jan. 16) this season.

“That’s great motivation for us, because we know what we have to do going into the game,” Newton said. “We know what we didn’t do last time and we have to learn.”

Providing they learned well enough, the Scarlet Knights could be headed for a showdown against top-seed Tennessee in the regional final on March 29.

Rutgers defeated the Lady Vols 65-51 on Dec. 29 at the RAC during an eight-day period in which they upset three Top 10 teams, including Texas and then-No. 1 LSU, the top seed in this year’s women’s tournament.

None of that, however, matters in March, according to Stringer.

“Whatever we have left in us, we have to put it all out,” the Knights’ 10th-year coach who led Rutgers to the Final Four in 2000, said.

“This is a whole new season — it’s one and done now. Our schedule was so good this year that I would have been happy with any bracket we were in. We shouldn’t fear anyone because there is no style we haven’t faced.”