Rutgers' offense taking off

Updated: March 31, 2007, 5:14 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- Pitchers don't have to hit at Jacobs Field, the home of the Cleveland Indians that sits adjacent to the Quicken Loans Arena, but the four basketball teams competing indoors at the Final Four don't have the option of eschewing offense.

And no matter how it looks sometimes, that's just fine with Rutgers.

Epiphanny Prince
AP Photo/Bob ChildFreshman Epiphanny Prince is one of four Rutgers players averaging right around 12 points per game.
Much has been made of the Scarlet Knights' transformation into a defensive-minded group capable of carrying out C. Vivian Stringer's notoriously stingy pressure system. After losing a number of privileges, including use of their locker room, following a 72-55 loss at Old Dominion in late December, a team with five freshmen and just three returning regulars from the previous season got the message about where the coach's priorities reside.

"We finally embraced defense," Stringer said of her young team's late-season surge.

Entering Sunday's semifinal against LSU (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), just one of the team's past 24 opponents has topped 60 points -- Connecticut on two occasions. And the Scarlet Knights remedied even that leak with a 55-47 win against the Huskies in the final of the Big East tournament. Compare that with the first 10 games of 2006-07 season, when seven opponents scored at least 70 points against Rutgers, and it's not difficult to see Stringer's point.

While there's no denying that defense is this team's calling card, that's only half of the story. Rutgers is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2000 because these players execute Stringer's exacting brand of defense at a level acceptable even to her. The Scarlet Knights are also back in the national semifinals because those same players represent arguably Stringer's best overall collection of offensive talent.

"In past years, we've always had that one person, that one superstar that was pretty much our offense," junior Essence Carson said. "This year, as you've probably noticed throughout the year, we have many options, even coming off the bench. On any given night, any of those five players on the court can put up 20 points."

That claim isn't just hyperbole -- five different Rutgers players have scored 20 points in a game at some point this season: Carson, Matee Ajavon, Kia Vaughn, Epiphanny Prince and Brittany Ray. The team's top four scorers average between 12.8 and 12.0 points per game and have all taken more than 300 shots from the floor.

Everything eventually comes back to defense when you're talking Rutgers, so it's not surprising that Carson explains the benefit of that balance in terms of what it does to break down an opponent's plan.

"That's something that has helped us throughout the year, because that just throws out all junk defenses," Carson said. "You play triangle-and-two, you have three other people who can shoot the ball and score just as well. That limits defenses, which makes coach's job a lot easier. I mean, our offensive power right now is just great. And combine that with our defense, and it's just pushing [us] further every day in practice and every game."

Denying the opposition the opportunity to setup its preferred defensive alignment makes life easier for the Scarlet Knights. And much of their offense comes as a result of the turnovers forced on defense -- Rutgers has averaged of 16.8 points per game off turnovers in the NCAA Tournament. But postseason basketball also means executing in half-court sets against talented defenses capable of getting back and slowing transition.

FINAL FOUR SCHEDULE

QUICKEN LOANS ARENA
CLEVELAND

SUNDAY
• (4) Rutgers vs. (3) LSU
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
• (1) UNC vs. (1) Tennessee
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
TUESDAY
• Semifinal winners
8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

"In the half-court set, we just want to make sure we make an extra pass, we want to get dribble penetration, we rely on offensive rebounds," sophomore starter Heather Zurich said. "Most of it is based on defense; that's just how we play and pushing the ball in transition. But on offense, we've just got to stay calm and move without the ball."

Few teams maintain poise and move the ball better than Rutgers does in its half-court offense. At times, the team's patience can result in slow-developing, and occasionally mind-numbing, possessions that threaten to burn out the bulbs in the shot clock before the game ends. In short, what Sergio Garcia is to speedy play in golf, Rutgers is to half-court offense.

But there is a significant difference between a morass and a mess, and what can appear to be a team bogging down is really a team looking to trap an opponent in the muck and create an open shot.

"Quick shots aren't the best shots all the time," Carson said. "If you don't have a great look, especially with a layup, it's all about time management. Being down under 10 seconds [on the shot clock], even five seconds, is something we're used to. We practice those situations each and every day in practice. That's something that coach likes to see sometimes. If the execution takes you 25 seconds and you only have five seconds left, hey, as long as you execute, no problem. The ball goes in the basket. As long as you limit those turnovers and get some defensive stops, everything is fine."

The result is an offense that moves the ball extremely well, despite not having a pass-first point guard leading the attack. Instead, both Ajavon, who has scored 20 points in three of the team's past four games, and Prince can initiate the offense by penetrating, while the other players on the court are responsible for keeping things moving and making use of Kia Vaughn in the post.

"Matee delivers the ball, she doesn't just pass it," Zurich said. "That's what is so good about her. And [Prince] is learning to do the same thing, learning off of Matee. But even getting the ball to the post, every player has got to be able to do that. We have Kia inside, so we've got to make sure we get her the ball."

If that doesn't happen, things begin to break down. Even with the presence of All-American Sylvia Fowles inside, LSU offers something of a mirror image in terms of balance on offense. Thus, Lady Tigers' point guard Erica White knows of what she speaks in laying out the best way to counter a team with so many moving parts.

"Knowing that when a team is so balanced, they need a couple of people to play well that night," White said. "And you just focus on playing defense as best as you can and try to limit the touches your man gets to limit their basket. Then you look up at the end of the night, and that team only had two people play well, or maybe only one person played well."

Of course, the flip side is shutting down one, two or even three players might not be enough, even if they enter the game as a defense's primary targets.

"You never know who is going to attack you," Prince said. "With our offense, I think, you never know who is going to score 20 points. You never know where it's going to come from … and I think that's hard for other teams who try to play us."

The offense isn't always easy for fans who try to watch them, either, but that doesn't mean it's as ineffective as a pitcher with a bat in his hands. Rutgers plays both ways; the Scarlet Knights just do it their way.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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