March 19, 2009
Though it's been a while, Rutgers and coach C. Vivian Stringer are familiar with hosting NCAA tournament games. For Virginia Commonwealth, the whole experience will be novel.
The seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights open their seventh straight NCAA tournament in the Oklahoma City Regional on their home court on Saturday against a Lady Rams team making its first appearance.
Rutgers (19-12) will enjoy the comfort of playing at home in the tournament for the first time since 2001. The Scarlet Knights are a combined 10-3 in the first and second rounds in Piscataway, N.J.
After getting an at-large bid, Rutgers will try to take advantage of a matchup at the Louis Brown Athletic Center against 10th-seeded NCAA tournament newcomer Virginia Commonwealth (26-6).
"If these guys stay focused and everybody accepts their role and we do whatever we need to do to stay tight and right, I am always going to believe," Stringer said of Rutgers' chances of advancing to the Final Four after an inconsistent regular season. "We are capable of doing that. We can be the Cinderella."
Stringer led the Scarlet Knights to the national championship game two years ago and the regional finals last season, but this season's club had a stretch in which it lost eight of 14 games. Rutgers lost two of its last three, 69-59 to top-ranked Connecticut on March 2 and 87-82 in double overtime to No. 7 Louisville on March 8 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
The Scarlet Knights are led by junior guard Epiphanny Prince, averaging a team-high 19.2 points and 2.7 steals. She was held to seven points on 2-for-8 shooting in a loss to the Huskies on April 1, 2008 in last year's Greensboro Regional final.
"If Epiphanny takes 50 shots, that's what we need Epiphanny to do," Stringer said.
Stringer will need center Kia Vaughn to be tough inside against Lady Rams leading scorer Quanitra Hollingsworth, who averages 14.8 points and 9.5 rebounds. The senior center had 17 points and nine rebounds in Virginia Commonwealth's 65-57 loss to James Madison in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament last Saturday.
The Lady Rams got an at-large berth two days later.
"I think we're excited for the opportunity and we're excited to get the at-large," Virginia Commonwealth coach Beth Cunningham said. "I'm proud of our kids and how hard they've worked. It's certainly an opportunity they deserve."
The Lady Rams insist they won't be intimidated by a pro-Rutgers crowd. They are 9-5 on the road this season.
"We've played in a number of tough atmospheres this year," Cunningham said. "We'll be prepared."
This will be the first meeting between the Scarlet Knights and Lady Rams. Rutgers is 32-19 in 20 previous tournament appearances.
The winner will likely face eighth-ranked Auburn in the second round Monday. The second-seeded Tigers are facing No. 15 seed Lehigh in the other first-round game at Piscataway on Saturday.