March 28, 2009

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Rutgers players had heard coach C. Vivian Stringer make bold pronouncements before, such as the Scarlet Knights being the unlikeliest of teams to achieve this or that, so sometimes those declarations went unheeded.

But when Stringer repeatedly told her player during the middle of the season that Rutgers wouldn't even make the NCAA tournament if they persisted in their inconsistent ways, something clicked.

"To me, being a senior, that was like a dagger in my heart," Rutgers center Kia Vaughn said. "I kept asking myself, what could we do? We else are we capable of doing? How many more games do we need? Everything counted. No matter what, I wanted to get here and we are."

Rutgers (21-12) lost six of 10 games during one stretch, but rebounded to win four of its last five in the regular season and lost by only 10 to unbeaten Connecticut in the finale. Then the Scarlet Knights won a first-round Big East Conference tournament game before pushing top-10 foe Louisville to double overtime before losing.

That proved to be enough for Rutgers to receive its seventh straight NCAA tournament berth. After two wins on their home court in Piscataway, N.J. - the latter an 80-52 romp over second-seeded Auburn - the seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights have reached the round of 16 for the fifth straight year and will play sixth-seeded Purdue (24-10) on Sunday in the Oklahoma City Regional.

"This has been an extremely trying schedule for me, and it's been gratifying, because ultimately we were able to see some of the things that we were teaching begin to take root and to that extent, we began to put things together," Stringer said Saturday.

"We're excited and happy that we got here. It's like the tortoise and the hare. It didn't matter how quickly you get something done, but that you continue to trod along, and we did that."

Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said the change in Rutgers has been noticeable.

"They've always been a great defensive team, but I think they're clicking on offense now," Versyp said. "I think they're continuing to build confidence and for them to be able to play at home was good for them and got momentum going."

As Stringer noted, there were times this season she thought that momentum might never develop. Two seasons removed from an appearance in the NCAA title game, Rutgers stumbled to a seventh-place finish in the Big East, thanks in good part to inexperience, as the Scarlet Knights count five freshmen among their top 11 players.

Too often, Stringer said, those freshmen - and their older teammates - would slough off scoring responsibilities on junior guard Epiphanny Prince, the team's leading scorer and a two-time first-team All-Big East pick.

While Prince remains capable of filling the basket - she's scored 53 points in NCAA wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Auburn - other Rutgers players are also contributing offensively, without letting the Scarlet Knights' trademark pressure defense slide.

"We're executing better and we're getting better shots, more settled in terms of who is taking the shots," Stringer said.

Rutgers, which ranks 18th in Division I in scoring defense, allowing an average of 54.7 points per game, will face a Purdue team that ranks 43rd in the same category. The Boilermakers' opponents averaged 56.8 points per game.

But while Rutgers prefers a slower tempo, Versyp said her team likes to push the basketball up the floor. That strategy proved particularly effective as the Boilermakers beat third-seeded North Carolina 85-70 in the second round. Purdue shot a season-high 57.1 percent from the field in that game, with five players scoring in double figures.

"That's going to be a big key," Versyp said. "They know we like to run in transition as much as we can. Last week, playing against UNC, we had to control the tempo because they wanted to run more than we do, and here we've got to push that a little bit but that stems from our defense.

"We have to defend and get the board so we can run, but I know it will be a defensive battle."

Versyp said the play of her point guard, FahKara Malone, will be key in that regard. Malone committed a season-high nine turnovers against North Carolina and knows that won't be acceptable against Rutgers.

"With North Carolina, you get so many different possessions that it doesn't seem as big," Malone said, "but against Rutgers, you may only get half of those. Taking care of the ball is going to be huge for me as much as controlling the tempo for my team."

Purdue has won 11 of its last 14 games, with the losses coming to two other Big Ten teams still playing in the NCAA tournament, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Boilermakers are in the round of 16 for the fifth time in the last seven seasons but Versyp insists that Purdue is an underdog against Rutgers.

"Nobody talks about Purdue," she said. "No one thought we would be very good a couple of years ago and we went to the Elite Eight. We don't have the stress, the pressure. We can relax and our kids have a quiet confidence about them. They're determined."