Rutgers suffers season's first loss to Big East foe

Updated: March 7, 2006, 12:11 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

"Some men see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'" -- George Bernard Shaw

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Why not West Virginia?

Olayinka Sanni
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamOlayinka Sanni had six points, six rebounds, three blocks and three steals vs. Rutgers.

This wasn't the team that was supposed to make a surprise run to glory in the Big East women's basketball tournament. Maybe Harry Parretta could carve out a run for Villanova by lulling opponents to sleep and getting hot from behind the arc. Maybe South Florida's Jessica Dickson or Notre Dame's Megan Duffy could carry a team for four days in a row.

But not West Virginia. Not with its best player, Meg Bulger, reduced to silent prayers on the bench after tearing her ACL earlier in the season. And not after suffering through a slump that saw the Mountaineers drop their final eight regular-season games and barely make the field as the No. 12 seed in the conference tournament.

After stunning top-seeded Rutgers 56-40 in Monday's semifinals, handing the Scarlet Knights their first loss of the season to a Big East opponent, West Virginia will play on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7:30 ET) for the Big East tournament title and one of the more improbable NCAA Tournament bids. Even reaching the final marks history in the conference, as no team seeded worse than seventh had accomplished that feat.

Monday's shocker started quietly, with the teams combining on possibly the worst half of basketball of the first three days of play. The Mountaineers held an 18-16 lead at the break, despite hitting just 6-of-24 shots from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. But instead of putting away an inferior opponent, Rutgers was equally woeful from the field and sowed the seeds of its own demise with 12 turnovers.

Of the early effort, Rutgers senior Cappie Pondexter said, "The intensity level never really picked up. Coach is right: [West Virginia] wanted it more."

And when LaQuita Owens buried a 3-pointer to extend West Virginia's lead to 35-26 with 10:10 left in the game, it seemed everyone from the benches to the top rows of the Hartford Civic Center realized the top seed might not rally for the win. Even Pat Summitt might get cheers from the Connecticut faithful if Rutgers was the opponent, and West Virginia players said it helped them hold on down the stretch to have the crowd solidly behind them.

That it wasn't going to be Rutgers' night was never more evident than on a play rarely seen in the women's game. When Essence Carson was called for basket interference after grabbing the rim while Pondexter's layup was still in the cylinder, negating two much-needed points with just more than eight minutes to play, the final reserves of energy seemed to fade away from Rutgers.

Any lack of intensity was especially surprising coming off Sunday's quarterfinal win against Villanova, when the team started slowly and both players and coach admitted they wouldn't survive many more games without playing a full 40 minutes.

In fact, maybe the only person outside of the West Virginia locker room who saw Monday's result coming was the one person most frustrated by her inability to do anything to stop it.

Asked if she was surprised by the outcome, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said, "I probably saw it coming when we had our meeting prior to the game. I tried to tell our team this when I saw their posture ... . When I walked in, I could tell we were not ready."

And the truth is that fairy-tale endings only emerge out of the ether in movies. In real life, the origins of an upset are far more complicated than someone waving a magic wand.

So did West Virginia do something that gives teams a game plan on how to handle what Parretta called on Saturday the best Rutgers team since the school's last trip to the Final Four? Or did Rutgers simply run out of steam emotionally after winning 16 consecutive games against conference opponents?

The Mountaineers used a 2-3 zone to stymie the Scarlet Knights, daring streaky shooters like Matee Ajavon and Carson to beat them from outside. It appeared to work wonders, with Rutgers rushing shots and even national player of the year candidate Pondexter finally appearing to wilt under the pressure of again being asked to bail out her faltering teammates.

But of the zone, Ajavon said, "I didn't think their zone was all that great. It did a great job of closing our offense in, but the middle was still open. We didn't do a great job of knocking down shots, which was pretty apparent."

The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, but what became apparent on Monday night was that Rutgers has a much smaller margin for error than many might have imagined based on the Scarlet Knights' regular-season dominance. This is a team with more offensive talent than past Rutgers clubs, but it is still a team without many great shooters. As long as they expend the all-out effort on defense and in transition that Stringer demands, the Scarlet Knights are among the best teams in the country. But if they let up at all ... well, as Stringer herself said, "If we don't play together as a team, it's not worth a dime."

Rutgers has a week until it discovers its bracket fate and at least five days after that to figure out how to fix what went wrong in Hartford.

But for now, as Rutgers heads back to New Jersey and experts reassess their brackets, the story of the moment is the team from Morgantown with one more game to go. The team with an opportunity to do what nobody thought possible.

The numbers say no team seeded worse than fifth has ever won the tournament.

But why not West Virginia?

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

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

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