How the mighty have fallen

Originally Published: December 30, 2004
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Not long after watching Rutgers take control and then hold Tennessee at arm's length for the rest of the night, I saw the result of the Michigan State-Connecticut game.

Did this really happen? UConn and Tennessee, the gargantuan shadows cast across women's hoops the past several years, not only both lost on the same night ... but by an almost identical score?

Yes, it really did: Michigan State beat UConn 67-51, Rutgers beat Tennessee 65-51.

Shanna Zolman
Shanna Zolman and the Lady Vols haven't got their offense on track this season.
Here at Rutgers, a crowd of 7,405 showed up for a 5 p.m. game that looked, for the first few minutes, as if the Scarlet Knights would not be able to hang with Tennessee. And then, kind of suddenly, the momentum shifted to Rutgers and never really swung back.

That was thanks, largely, to two freshmen who stole the rookie spotlight from Tennessee's much-lauded class. While Matee Ajavon zipped around and through the Orange defense, Essence Carson seemed to do a lot of jumping over it.

Ajavon, a 5-foot-8 guard from Newark, N.J., has game-changing quickness. And, at least Wednesday, she showed a lot of confidence in having the ball in her hands when something needed to be done. She finished with a game-high 20 points.

Carson is a 6-foot guard from Paterson, N.J., whose leaping ability and strength will captivate fans. She had 14 points and 13 rebounds. Her work on the boards was really fantastic and almost evenly divided, with six on offense and seven on defense.

I'd like to tell you what Ajavon and Carson thought of the biggest day in their young careers, but ... Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer has a policy of not allowing freshmen to talk to the media after games.

These are both bright kids with tremendous basketball skills. They are more than capable of handling a few questions after games, just like freshmen everywhere else do. And consider what Rutgers senior Chelsea Newton said about Ajavon and Carson. She explained that during recent practices, Stringer has been treating the freshmen, "Like veterans. She's expecting a lot."

So they're supposed to play like veterans during games, but then aren't allowed to speak for themselves afterward? How does that make any sense?

Newton said she was sort of surprised at how well the freshmen played, but also not surprised. She has seen in practice what they can do. Their next big task is following up such a huge victory, especially because they're facing two teams ranked higher than Tennessee. Rutgers travels to Texas on Sunday and then has LSU visiting the Louis Brown Athletic Center next Wednesday.

Ajavon and Carson alone had more energy and battling spirit than the all of the Lady Vols in the first half. Then add in junior forward Michelle Campbell's 5-for-5 performance from the field, plus the defense and leadership of Newton and junior Nikki Jett, and there you had the recipe to dominate Tennessee.

And we haven't even mentioned yet the return of senior guard Cappie Pondexter, who sat out Rutgers' first eight games because of personal issues. She came back against Tennessee and scored one point in 15 minutes, missing all five of her shots from the field. She's not in game shape, obviously. But Pondexter's presence was still a boost for Rutgers.

"I was away from the game for four months," Pondexter said. "I think I've brought a new spirit to the team."

Added Newton, "Knowing she's there is a burden off anyone's back. I'm so happy."

Tennessee was anything but, of course. In the first half, the Lady Vols shot 4-for-20 from the field, and finished 15-for-54 (27.8 percent). Coach Pat Summitt acknowledged the struggles her team is having with shooting the ball have hurt on the defensive end as well.

Pat Summitt
Pat Summitt says the parity of December could extend to March this season.
"Oh, absolutely," she said. "We've missed so many opportunities to knock down shots that we can't get a press set up. And we miss free throws, too."

Summitt was displeased with shooters Shanna Zolman and Sidney Spencer not getting off enough shots. And she was dismayed with the overall team effort.

That's the way the standards are at Tennessee, but it's important to point out -- once again -- how difficult the schedule is. You could combine several teams' nonconference foes and not equal the number of high-quality teams Tennessee has played and will play this season.

This is old news at Tennessee, but it bears repeating because it's needed for context. Zolman talked about a lack of effort being inexcusable, but I cut her and Tennessee more slack than that. Freshman Candace Parker is still not in action, and there's a lot of frustration with the team's sputtering offense.

UConn is coping with its own problems, not the least of which Wednesday was the simple fact that Michigan State is quite good. The Spartans have a lot of the right pieces together this season and are playing with confidence. That's something that's lacking now at UConn.

Of course, Wednesday evening ended up with another upset, as Stanford fell at Oregon. Summitt said we've long seen at least some parity in December, but that hasn't necessarily changed how things end up in March and April. But this year, she said, might be different.

One thing is likely to be different in January: When Tennessee plays at Connecticut on Jan. 8, it might seem less like a "clash of the titans" than a battle between two slightly stunned and bloodied prizefighters, each trying to knock the other further off-balance.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE