- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- A trail of ticker-tape followers clogged traffic even more than usual from Manhattan to the Meadowlands on Tuesday in a daylong celebration of the inevitability of gridiron imperfection. A few hours later and a few miles farther down the New Jersey Turnpike, Rutgers added its own tribute.
Behind a career-high 33 points from Epiphanny Prince, Rutgers rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to stun top-ranked and previously perfect Connecticut 73-71.
Coming off a conference loss at No. 12 West Virginia last week and staring down a road trip to Tennessee next week, the Scarlet Knights faced the prospect of erasing the positive momentum gained in early wins against Maryland, LSU and California. But instead of starting a slide, Tuesday's game turned into a statement.
"I said this game would be good for a lot reasons," Stringer said in something of a Zen moment after the win. "We would either find out who we are, or we would find out who we are. And we found out who we are."
Come again, coach?
"When people back us up in a corner, we come out fighting. There is an honor there. We're fighters, and you should never count us out."
Rutgers honored representatives from each of its women's athletic teams at halftime, each group led onto the court by Olympic-style placards announcing its sport. For obvious reasons, the women's basketball delegation lacked players, but the lonely placard still marched with the rest of the teams and seemed like a rather fitting assessment of a team that scored two dozen points on 34 percent shooting in the first half and trailed 33-24.
After 20 minutes, the nation's seventh-ranked team had a grand total of two assists.
Connecticut expanded the lead to 10 points on two occasions early in the second half, but with 15:58 to play, Prince converted a three-point play after an aggressive drive to the basket to cut the lead to 40-33. Less than three minutes later, Rutgers had possession of a 46-44 lead and Prince had scored 14 points in the span of 177 seconds. Connecticut eventually reclaimed the lead and the game was a back-and-forth affair for the final 10 minutes, but the tide turned for good during Prince's tear.
Stringer compared it to the kind of individual offensive binges Cappie Pondexter used to collect for Rutgers. Connecticut guard Renee Montgomery called on the memory of Sylvia Fowles' dominating performance in last year's NCAA Tournament. And the raucous crowd of more than 8,000 sounded like it hadn't ever seen anything like it.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma perhaps summed it up best: "Epiphanny just started making shots and it kind of got everybody into the flow of it."
Prince converted three-point plays three times during her outburst. Stringer's concern about playing a team with Connecticut's size was apparent in her decision to start Rashidat Junaid alongside Kia Vaughn, but it turned out to be the 5-foot-9 Prince who staked the strongest claim to the space around the basket in the second half.
"It wasn't like she made easy shots," Auriemma said. "They were tough shots. And I was kind of disappointed in our big guys, because we made her put the ball on the floor and go to the basket a couple of times. And they just, for whatever reason, we just didn't get the stop that we needed. We ended up putting her on the free-throw line instead. And she's pretty good at drawing fouls."
Growing up in Brooklyn, Prince was not exactly a tomboy. She played double-dutch, danced and was a Girl Scout. But when it came to basketball, she was strictly one of the boys. Prince said she only consented to play basketball with girls in the eighth grade as part of a bargain to also play with the boys' team at the school. And she credits all those years spent playing against boys with developing the kind of toughness in the lane that showed up throughout the second half of Tuesday's game.
"I think it helped me a lot," Prince said. "I know a lot of girls when they play, to go to the basket they don't know how to use their bodies to get it. But that's what I had to do, because they were always trying to block my shots. So I think that taught me how to use my body and get, like, good body control and things. They was always faster than me, so I used to have to work on my ballhandling to get past them."
As a result of how often she got past Connecticut's defenders, Auriemma's team will surrender its place atop the national polls. But that's a far cry from suggesting the Huskies were exposed as definitely not the best team in the nation.
Rutgers entered the game with a 5-20 mark all-time against Connecticut, but it had a 3-6 mark at home, often competing against the would-be with teams less accomplished than the current edition. In conjunction with an upcoming game at LSU, playing in Piscataway was one of the two biggest hurdles remaining in the regular season for the Huskies.
And they still almost came away with a win.
What Tuesday's result did suggest was that the Huskies are not immune to the injuries that ended the seasons of starters Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas. With or without Greene and Thomas, the best teams Connecticut faced prior to Rutgers had uncertain backcourts. Stanford was still working Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and JJ Hones back into the mix when they lost in November. Duke, in the same tournament in the Virgin Islands, was working in freshman Jasmine Thomas and dealing with injuries to Wanisha Smith and Abby Waner that limited both early in the season. Even North Carolina had two freshmen in Cetera DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas playing key roles in its backcourt.
But with both Thomas and Greene out of the lineup, necessitating a move for Montgomery from point guard to shooting guard, the Huskies ran into a team with guards in Prince, Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon fresh off a Final Four run. The result was a team that struggled to solve Rutgers' pressure and looked out of sync offensively all night whenever Montgomery wasn't able to bail them out. On Super Tuesday, Connecticut's problem, like the infamous "bridge to nowhere," was passes that seemed to go nowhere.
"One of the nice things about when you have a team that likes to share the ball and pass the ball, we pass the ball a lot," Auriemma said. "We get everybody involved and one of the problems is too many people get involved and the ball is over the place. I just thought we lost our composure, plain and simple."
A win Tuesday would have marked the fifth time a Connecticut team started the season 22-0. The good news is that three of the other seasons in Auriemma's tenure ended in national championships.
"I think when we go back and watch the film with our team, I think they'll see a whole bunch of things that they wish they had over again," Auriemma said.
They'll get that chance. Perfection would have been nice, but it only really matters when it comes to a six-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament.
As for the victors, 20 minutes of something close to perfection proved this team is still a championship contender.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
After a forgettable first half, Rutgers and Epiphanny Prince put an end to UConn's perfect season.