7:30 PM ET, March 1, 2005
VILLANOVA, Pa. (ESPN.com news services) -- Move over, UConn. There's a new champ in the Big East.Matee Ajavon scored 14 points and Michelle Campbell added 13, helping No. 9 Rutgers win its first Big East Conference regular-season title outright with a 51-39 win over Villanova on Tuesday night.The Scarlet Knights (23-5, 14-2) shared the 1998-99 crown with Connecticut, which had won or shared 11 straight regular-season titles."I'm sure that for all of us who have watched the domination of Connecticut for so many years, that to think we would be the team that would win the Big East outright, wow, that's special," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer.Stringer wrote on a board in the locker room "first to third," emphasizing that the Scarlet Knights could have been the third seed in the conference tournament with a loss. With that kind of motivation, the Wildcats never really stood a chance.Rutgers, winners of 18 of its last 21 games, earned its first No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament that begins Saturday at the Hartford Civic Center. It has a first-round bye and will play March 6 in the quarterfinals."I would be so hurt if we win the Big East outright and then don't put the games together in the tournament," Stringer said.Only a year ago, Rutgers was so overcome by injuries that the Scarlet Knights suited up a team manager or two for the NCAA Tournament. And they were sent home early as a seventh seed, losing to No. 10 seed Chattanooga on its home floor.Stringer told her team that everyone would be coming hard for the Scarlet Knights in the tournament."I'm quite sure everyone will want to beat us, but we want to beat everyone else, too," said Cappie Pondexter.Liad Suez had 12 points for the Wildcats (17-10, 10-6), scoring just two in the second half.Villanova has a recent history of knocking off Top 10 teams, including the No. 1 Huskies in last year's season finale and then-No. 4 Notre Dame last month.Rutgers could never really pull away from the Wildcats, though it hardly mattered. Pondexter scored six straight points for the Scarlet Knights late in the second half, helping push a four-point lead to 11."I said with 5 minutes to go, she was going to take over," Villanova coach Harry Perretta said of Pondexter. "She's that good of a player."Essence Carson had 10 rebounds for Rutgers, who had a 40-24 edge on the boards.The Wildcats finished strong, winning five of seven after they were 12-8 on Feb. 5. Perretta said Villanova deserved an at-large NCAA tournament bid if it can't win the Big East tourney.About 500 Rutgers fans -- all clad in red -- started chanting "Big East title!" as the seconds ticked away. The team huddled at midcourt and waved to the fans after the game."The fans have been phenomenal," Stringer said. "We've all been on this ride together."The Scarlet Knights certainly had reason to be happy. The expectations for Rutgers, which was 21-12 a year ago, increased markedly with three wins over Top 10 teams in eight days.The Scarlet Knights, which finished the regular season with wins over seven ranked teams, started their string of upsets with a win at home over then-No. 8 Tennessee on Dec. 29. Four days later in Texas, they rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to beat the then-No. 4 team. They rallied from 13 down to knock off previously unbeaten and top-ranked LSU.Now, Rutgers has something to show for those wins. The Scarlet Knights insist they aren't finished with the big victories."If we celebrate too hard, we'll lose our focus," Pondexter said. "We've got to focus on the NCAA Tournament."Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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