Rutgers comes together just in time
Team-oriented mindset carries Scarlet Knights into Sweet 16
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- There's probably an appropriate parable to describe what happened in Monday's second-round game between Rutgers and Auburn that involves a knight slaying a tiger. But as it is, it's tough to think of anything but the tortoise passing the disbelieving hare after a four-month race.
Only this time, the tortoise sprinted across the finish line.
In a game in which the run of play fit the expectations of the preseason polls far better than those of the postseason pecking order, seventh-seeded Rutgers blew past second-seeded Auburn, 80-52. But if coach C. Vivian Stringer's team -- which began the season ranked No. 3 in the nation -- was at one time expected to reach its fifth consecutive Sweet 16 without incident, evidence of how far it traveled to get there came from the red road uniforms the underdog Scarlet Knights wore on their home court at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
"We struggled a lot, but what's most important is that it doesn't matter where we come from, it's where we're going," Stringer said of this season. "And ultimately, we had a chance to prove that we're a much better team than what we had proven ourselves this year."
From the opening jump ball, when Auburn somehow let Khadijah Rushdan and Epiphanny Prince slip almost completely free behind Kia Vaughn's tip and convert a 2-on-1 break four seconds into the game, Rutgers dictated how the evening would unfold. The Knights jumped to a 9-0 lead after 2½ minutes, a 15-point lead at the break, and silenced Auburn's second-half rally long before it could become dangerous.
A team that relied on its offense to set up its defense, and whose offense indeed led it to 30 wins and an SEC regular-season title, Auburn shot a season-low 28 percent.
And Rutgers, a team that seemed at times during the regular season to have all the momentum of an indecisive glacier, looked like a team that could steamroll to St. Louis.
"It's just very satisfying," junior Brittany Ray said after adding 12 points and five rebounds. "We worked very hard throughout the whole season -- the losses that we suffered were very hard for us. We learned a great deal from them losses, and we just used that momentum all through this tournament and we just executed what our coaches put out. Their scouting report, we just executed it to a tee."
It's just very satisfying. We worked very hard throughout the whole season -- the losses that we suffered were very hard for us.
-- Rutgers junior Brittany Ray
Rutgers stumbled out of the gate this season, losing at California and Stanford by a combined 48 points just before Thanksgiving. It tripped over its own feet after squandering a 20-point lead at home against Tennessee, and it snowballed into a three-game losing streak. And it fell flat on its face when five losses in eight games culminated in a 20-point loss at Maryland that put the Scarlet Knights squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
One member of the highly touted quintet of freshmen, Jasmine Dixon, transferred before Christmas. The remaining four struggled to find a comfort level on the floor, and the dysfunction carried all the way up the roster. Games became contests to see whether Prince could single-handedly do enough for the team to squeak by on the scoreboard.
Some nights it worked, like in a double-overtime win against Georgetown. Some nights it didn't, like a home loss against South Florida. Either way, it wasn't the real Rutgers.
"I think our problem was we had two separate teams, like upperclassmen and freshmen," Prince said. "So now we're coming together, now everybody wants to play hard for one another."
Prince can still do a lot on her own, crossing over for pull-up jumpers, spotting up from behind the arc or cutting through the lane and finishing in traffic. But when she earned her third opportunity for a three-point play against 6-foot-7 KeKe Carrier on Monday night, Kia Vaughn and Heather Zurich were quickly at her side to pick her up and dust her off. And it wasn't just moral support. Prince finished with 27 points, but Vaughn, Zurich and Ray all finished in double figures as well, with Rushdan right behind with nine points.
Somewhere along the line, Rutgers' one-woman show once again became an ensemble.
"I think toward the middle of the season, we lost confidence in ourselves," Ray said. "Our coach always had confidence in us, but I think it was only up to us. Anybody can have confidence in you, but if you never have confidence in yourself, you're never going to get anything done. I think when we started grasping the fact we're a good team and we have a lot of talent -- we have two of the best players in the country in Kia Vaughn and Epiphanny Prince, so we just used them as our leaders and we worked from there."
Rock bottom came after the Maryland loss. A team meeting outlined exactly what needed to change, and it wasn't the system that guided the Knights deep into the tournament the past four seasons.
"Tactically, it was nothing changed about it," Ray said. "Our coaches did the same thing they always executed. But mentally, I think we all came together as a team and said, you know, it starts now because Kia and Heather are our seniors and we don't want them to go out on a bad note."
Vaughn finished with a double-double against Auburn. Excluding a blowout win against Seton Hall early in the Big East tournament when she played only 18 minutes, she's averaging 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in her past seven games and making Prince's claim that Vaughn can be the best post player in the nation seem credible. Zurich scored 12 points, including a memorable four-point play, and handled long stretches guarding DeWanna Bonner on a night when the All-American hit just 5 of 15 shots.
Replacing Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon as the senior leaders was always going to be an impossible task for anyone, but in their own way, Vaughn and Zurich have set a tone.
"I don't know how to put Kia and Heather into words," Ray said. "Just to see them emerge and grow as people -- not just basketball players but people -- they're awesome to be around off the court. And they just work extremely hard. They're two of the people I've seen work hard all the time. They never make excuses; they never take any days off."
That Auburn was forced to play its second-round game on a lower-seeded opponent's home court will remain a topic of legitimate debate well into the summer. But on this night, it was hard to say the court carried the weight of 28 points. On this night, Rutgers was the better team. Finally.
"No one's expecting it from us, and it just felt great to prove everybody wrong," Prince said. "So I think that's why it feels happy -- because we won and we proved everybody wrong. A lot of people didn't think we would get out of this game, and then to do it the way that we did, it made it that much better."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.