Rutgers on remarkable run

Updated: January 6, 2005, 10:50 AM ET
By Melanie Jackson | Special to ESPN.com

Wait until January.

That's what many Rutgers fans were saying when November's preseason polls both ranked the Scarlet Knights at a lowly No. 17. Wait until Rutgers' highly touted freshmen found their groove. Wait until point guard Cappie Pondexter, who in September announced she would miss the first half of the season for undisclosed reasons, returned.

And shame on the pollsters for doubting C. Vivian Stringer and Rutgers in the meantime.

Well, the new year has arrived, and so have the Scarlet Knights. And so far, things just keep getting better in Piscataway, N.J.

A month after notching her 700th career coaching victory (and four months after assisting the USA women to gold in Athens), Stringer led the Scarlet Knights to their third consecutive upset of a top-10 opponent Wednesday, knocking off No. 1 and previously unbeaten LSU 51-49 in overtime. Over the past eight days, Rutgers also reeled off a home victory against then-No. 8 Tennessee and a road victory at then-No. 3 Texas.

Here's a look at Rutgers' remarkable run:

STRINGER TRIO
Rutgers 65,
Tennessee 51

Dec. 29
Piscataway, N.J.
Forget about the Lady Vols' much-lauded freshman class. Rutgers rookie guards Matee Ajavon (game-high 20 points) and Essence Carson (14 points and 13 rebounds) stole the show as the Scarlet Knights held then No. 8-Tennessee to 16 first-half points.

But Rutgers' trademark stingy defense was the difference, too. Tennessee, which finished just 15-for-54 (27.8 percent) from the field, committed 13 turnovers in the first half, and its 16 points were just two shy of the Lady Vols' record low set against Virginia in 1996. The 51 points also tied for Tennessee's second fewest single-game total, matching totals against Georgia in 2000 and Long Beach State in 1983.

At halftime, facing a 17-point deficit that tied for the third highest in Tennessee history, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt broke her clipboard out of frustration.

"I didn't throw anything. That's not my style," Summitt said. "I did think about it, though."

In her first game of the season, Pondexter scored just one point in 15 minutes, missing all five shots from the field. But as Rutgers senior Chelsea Newton said, "Knowing she's there is a burden off anyone's back. I'm so happy." Pondexter, Rutgers' leading scorer the past two seasons and regarded as one of the top point guards in the country, missed the first eight games of the season.
Rutgers 51,
Texas 47

Jan. 2
Austin, Texas
The upset in itself was big. In her second straight game, Stringer beat a fellow member of the 700-club (Jody Conradt), and the Scarlet Knights toppled the country's third-ranked team. But to win in Austin? Huge. And a long time coming as Rutgers snapped the Longhorns' 41-game home winning streak.

Equally impressive? The Scarlet Knights held Texas scoreless the final 8½ minutes and scored 13 unanswered points to end the game and overcome an 18-point deficit.

Conradt said Texas "had a total offensive collapse in the second half," but credit Ajavon for again leading the way. With Texas up 40-22 shortly after the break, the freshman scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half, including three jumpers that cut the Longhorns' lead to 45-38 with 9:20 remaining. Ajavon then hit another two baskets to give Rutgers a 49-47 lead, and Carson's jumper with 12 seconds left sealed the win.

As Stringer put it, "It feels good anytime you beat Texas and Tennessee. Wins over those great coaches are very special."

In 20 minutes, Pondexter went 4-for-10 from the field for 11 points, with five rebounds and one assist.
Rutgers 51,
LSU 49 (OT)

Jan. 5
Piscataway, N.J.
LSU coach Pokey Chatman said it best: When you hold a team to 51 points, that should translate into a win. But Pondexter came to play, scoring 16 points (7-for-17) to help Rutgers rally from a 10-point halftime deficit and overcome 25 points and 10 rebounds from Seimone Augustus, who missed a potential game-winning 16-footer as regulation ended.

The top-ranked Lady Tigers owned the first half, shooting 54.5 percent from the field to pull away from Rutgers, which shot just 28.6 percent before the break. But in the second half, the Scarlet Knights connected on 44.4 percent from the field as LSU's accuracy dipped to 33 percent, and held the Lady Tigers to just two field goals over the final 15 minutes of the game, including the five-minute overtime period, where both teams combined for just six points.

In overtime, Rutgers took the lead on a Chelsea Newton jumper and a pair of Pondexter free throws. Though Pondexter then missed the front end of a one-and-one with 4.9 seconds to play, Newton intercepted LSU's outlet pass following the miss to secure the win.

Michelle Campbell, Rutgers' leading scorer this season with 13.6 points per game, added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Scarlet Knights, who notched their fourth victory over a No. 1 team in program history and committed just 10 turnovers to LSU's 21. Ajavon, the Big East freshman of the week for a second time this season, finished with just two points after struggling through foul trouble, but is one of five Rutgers players averaging at least 9.0 points.

Next up? At St. John's on Saturday as the Big East season opens, then a date with Pittsburgh on Tuesday. By then, Rutgers (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 14 AP) should have easily moved into the top 10.

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.

Melanie Jackson | email

Women's Basketball
Melanie Jackson is ESPN.com's women's basketball editor.

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