Stringer molds young Rutgers into Final Four team

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Remember how this season began for Rutgers? The team was ranked 11th in the preseason coaches' poll and had lost starters Cappie Pondexter and Michelle Campbell to graduation.

Guard Matee Ajavon was sidelined with a stress fracture. Post player Kia Vaughn was a returning starter, but just a sophomore. There were five freshmen. There were no seniors. So a lot fell on the shoulders of junior do-everything player Essence Carson.

"Essence starts off [the season] playing the point guard, and that's not her position," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "She had played the power forward the year before. But it speaks to the tremendous flexibility this young woman has. And she is the ultimate team player. She would do anything to help this team."

Carson was asked if, back at the start of the season, she really believed the Scarlet Knights could be a Final Four team.

"Yes and no," Carson said. "It was depending on whether we had enough heart to push it through. In early December, we were at a make-or-break with Duke and DePaul [both losses]. We could have broken at that point or sucked it up like we did and kept it going.

"In my heart, I really did believe in us. I used to tell the freshmen all the time, if we get it together, we're going to be very dangerous. Once everyone started to accept our defense -- and understand as long as we play defense, we'll win -- that's when it started becoming a reality."

And it officially became reality here at Greensboro Coliseum on Monday night. The No. 4 seed Scarlet Knights dominated third-seeded Arizona State 64-45. Unless you are a die-hard Rutgers fan, it was not a particularly enjoyable game to watch. The Sun Devils' offense against Rutgers' defense was like an ice cream bar versus a blast furnace.

OK, maybe it wasn't that bad. Well, actually, it pretty much was. ASU shot 32.7 percent from the field (16-of-49). The Sun Devils didn't break the 40-point "plateau" -- to use that word loosely -- until less than three minutes were left in the game. They were also outrebounded 48-26.

"It was tremendous defense," ASU senior Emily Westerberg said.

And Rutgers' offense was more than good enough. Four players finished in double figures, led by Ajavon with 20 points. She also had six assists. Vaughn (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Epiphanny Prince (10, 10) had double-doubles. Carson had 11 points and eight rebounds.

Stringer is taking the Scarlet Knights to the Final Four for the second time, and making her fourth trip as a coach. She also went in 1982 with Cheyney State and 1993 with Iowa. Rutgers' other appearance in the national semifinals was in 2000.

"This has to be right there at the top, if not the top," Stringer said. "I've never worked with a group of young people who had to come from such a great distance back. This was like a depleted team that you have to mold from scratch.

"You had two main people to work with: Mat and 'E.' And Mat wasn't on the floor, so it was up to Essence. Then it was Essence Carson and Kia Vaughn who had a vision. No one else had a clue."

Stringer said she knew what freshmen such as Prince were thinking back then.

"What did we come here for? We're losing games; the coaches are on us," Stringer said. "And in terms [of] having things demonstrated, there weren't many upperclassmen to show how they had to be done."

Stringer talked about the growth of this group. For instance, Prince was famous as a scorer in high school. And she did hit the winning basket Saturday in the upset of No. 1 Duke. But before that basket, Prince made a big defensive play, stripping the ball away from Duke's Wanisha Smith, who'd snared an offensive rebound.

"Her greatest moment was when she stole the ball to get that final bucket," Stringer said. "Now she loves defense. You have to tell her everything, but she's a quick learner. That's true of all these guys. They've been able to transfer their success in the classroom. They work hard and they listen."

Stringer had said Sunday that everyone who walked up to her before the Duke game wished her luck, but in a tone that almost said, "Sorry that you're going to your own funeral." But the Scarlet Knights won that game, setting up a matchup with Arizona State, which both squads thought was meant to be.

In November, they were supposed to meet in the Virgin Islands. That didn't happen when ASU forward Aubree Johnson's younger brother Jordan -- there to watch her play -- was found dead the morning of the game, having died in his sleep from an enlarged heart.

The Sun Devils were, of course, shattered. Coach Charli Turner Thorne still has a difficult time even speaking about it without choking up. Stringer and her Scarlet Knights were nothing but supportive, refusing to go to the gym and force a forfeit. The game was canceled.

Stringer believes her team couldn't have beaten ASU back then. Considering that on Dec. 4, the Scarlet Knights lost by 40 at home to Duke, she is likely right. But it's a completely different Rutgers team now, with Ajavon back close to 100 percent, Vaughn having really established herself inside, the freshmen developing as rookies do and Carson being the consistent leader throughout.

Was Monday's game a disappointment for the Pac-10? Of course. No West Coast team other than Stanford has gone to the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988. Stanford is the last West Coast team to win a title, and that was in 1992.

But Turner Thorne believes the Sun Devils are in very good shape for 2007-08. Briann January, who played Monday after a concussion kept her out of the semifinal win over Bowling Green, led ASU with 12 points. She's one of the Sun Devils who will be back.

"We are excited," Turner Thorne said. "Stay tuned to Arizona State next year."

The thing is, a lot of people thought that would be the unspoken motto for Rutgers this season, too. You know, that next season was when it was all going to come together. But after the Scarlet Knights won the Big East tournament title at the Hartford Civic Center over UConn -- they had lost twice to the Huskies in the regular season -- they started to sense maybe they were a bit ahead of schedule.

"It was a great feeling -- to pull off a win at their home was big for us," Ajavon said of that March 6 game. "And it definitely did something for us emotionally; it showed us we could play anybody. We could stay with the best of them if we played together."

And it seems to have set up a pattern of winning on somebody else's turf. In the second round, Rutgers had to beat Michigan State on the Spartans' home floor. Next, the Scarlet Knights beat Duke, which has played many ACC tournament games at Greensboro Coliseum, an hour from the Blue Devils' campus.

In Cleveland, Rutgers won't have to face an Ohio team -- its semifinal will be against LSU -- but there is a connection there, too. Last year, in a heartbreaker for Pondexter in particular, the Scarlet Knights' season ended in Cleveland, in the regional semifinals against Tennessee.

"Wow, who would have thunk it?" Stringer said with a smile. "I can't believe that we're here. I can't be more proud and happier for a young group of women."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.