Ajavon, Rutgers shut down Notre Dame

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) -- Matee Ajavon celebrated her return to Rutgers' starting lineup with one of the best games of her career.

The sophomore guard scored a season-high 28 points Tuesday night to lead the Scarlet Knights (No. 9 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) to a 69-43 victory over No. 21 Notre Dame.

The win kept Rutgers (14-3, 6-0) undefeated in the Big East and a half-game behind Connecticut (No. 4 ESPN/USA Today, No. 5 AP). The Huskies (18-2, 7-0) beat South Florida 77-47 on Tuesday.

An off-and-on starter this season after she came back to school nursing a stress fracture in her shin that occurred last spring, Ajavon had to prove to coach C. Vivian Stringer that her conditioning level was up to the demands of Rutgers' suffocating
pressure defense.

Words wouldn't do it, but a grueling physical test did the trick. Ajavon passed the test on Sunday and carried the Scarlet Knights on a night when leading scorer Cappie Pondexter was held to six points in the first half.

"I had to earn it," Ajavon said. "She said as long as I passed the test I was going to start. The shots were there, so I just took them and tried to get everybody else involved too."

All the "suicides" -- progressively longer sprints back and forth starting from one baseline and eventually ending at the other -- and various other drills paid off on the defensive end, too, as Ajavon and her teammates pressured Notre Dame into 22 turnovers that led to 35 points.

"Their defense was outstanding," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "It looked like they had six or seven people on the floor. We couldn't get the ball inside."

Rutgers held the Fighting Irish to one free throw over the game's first 11 minutes and led 20-1 at one point before the visitors slowly fought back and trailed 26-18 at halftime.

The lead shrank to 28-24 early in the second half when Notre Dame's Breona Gray hit a 3-pointer. Then Ajavon and Pondexter, who finished with 20 points, took over.

The two combined for 23 points in a 32-6 run that gave Rutgers a 60-30 lead. Ajavon finished 11-for-18 from the field, including 5-for-7 from 3-point range, and missed her career high, set last year, by one point.

Megan Duffy had 10 points for Notre Dame (12-6, 3-4).

Where Rutgers had the biggest edge was on defense, and Stringer sounded as if she was sending a warning to future opponents to expect more of the same in the coming weeks.

"We've decided that that's who we are and that's who we need to be: very intense on the defensive side," she said.

Rutgers' win improved its record against Top 25 teams to 2-2. The most recent was a 48-47 loss to then-No. 21 Temple last week that snapped a 20-game home winning streak and made the Scarlet Knights stop and take stock.

Two days later, Rutgers throttled Louisville 80-55.

"The Temple game unmasked us," Pondexter said. "It showed a lot. As a group, we were hurting after that and we could have taken it either way, kept going down or headed in the right direction. I think we're heading in the right direction."