IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- Every time Rutgers (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today, No. 6 AP) needed a big basket, Cappie Pondexter found a way to deliver.
But none was bigger than her 3-pointer that came with 7:03 left in the game and Rutgers trailing San Jose State 53-52.
Pondexter, who had a season-high 26 points, swished it from the deep right baseline, triggering a 14-2 run that lifted Rutgers (4-0) to a 76-64 victory in the opening round of the Hawkeye Challenge.
"Cappie is a big-time player and she knows when it's time to get busy," said Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer. "That's exactly why she's being considered for National Player of the Year."
Rutgers advances to Sunday's championship game against host Iowa, a 79-57 winner over Vermont.
The Scarlet Knights had three other players in double figures, shot 47 percent, hit 20-of-25 free throws and forced 17 turnovers. Matee Ajavon had 15 points and Essence Carson and Michelle Campbell each added 10.
But Pondexter was clutch from start to finish, with many of her points coming just when her team needed them most to turn back a Spartan surge.
Three times in the first half, San Jose cut the lead to five or less, only to see Pondexter answer on the next possession.
Midway through the second, San Jose center Lamisha Augustine hit two free throws to pull within one. But after the Spartans rebounded a Rutgers miss on the next possession, Pondexter slipped in to steal the ball and sink an easy basket off the glass to put Rutgers up 48-45.
San Jose State (2-2) had its chances to pull off the upset.
Six times in the second half, the Spartans either tied the score or cut the lead to fewer than three points before Rutgers put the game away.
"I was really disappointed ... because I thought we did a good job to put ourselves in a position to win," said Spartan coach Janice Richard, adding she tried every trick to slow down Pondexter. "Well, she is a true all-American. When the game was tight, she took over."
After being held to one point in the first half, Augustine found her touch in the second half to finish with 18 points, including 10-of-13 from the free-throw line. Amber Jackson scored 13 points and Alisha Hicks chipped in 10.
San Jose shot 44 percent from the field and 33 percent of 3-pointers.
Rutgers seemed in control early, as Pondexter scored eight early points in building a 13-4 lead five minutes into the game. Twice the Scarlet Knights held leads of 11 points, the second coming when Michelle Campbell scored inside to put Rutgers up 19-8 with 12:56 to go.
But the Spartans refused to back down. A lay-up by Jackson set off a 16-8 run, capped on the other end by Anetero Uiagalelei's 3-pointer that made the score 27-24.
A pair of free throws by Breana Fields with six seconds left in the half brought San Jose to within one point. But Pondexter, who had 14 first-half points, grabbed the inbound pass, drove the length of the floor and sank a pull-up jumper before the buzzer to give Rutgers a 37-34 lead at the break.