Rutgers hands top-ranked UCONN first loss

Rutgers 73, UCONN, 71
February 6, 2008 7:50:20 AM PST
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer has been waiting all season for her team to get its swagger back.Perhaps another win over top-ranked Connecticut was just what the Scarlet Knights needed.

Epiphanny Prince scored 27 of her career-high 33 points in the second half and No. 7 Rutgers handed Connecticut its first loss, 73-71, Tuesday night.

"I don't think her game was anything less than spectacular," Stringer said.

Coming off a loss to Tennessee in the national championship game, Rutgers had been inconsistent at times this season. What seemed to be lacking was the intensity that got the Scarlet Knights to the school's first title game.

There was plenty of that Tuesday night against Connecticut.

"We found out who we are tonight," said Stringer. "Scarlet Knights are warriors, they never say die and come out fighting with their backs against the wall. We are fighters."

Lately, Rutgers has been taking the fight to UConn.

Despite losing 17 of the first 18 meetings to Connecticut, Rutgers is starting to even things out. The Scarlet Knights have taken five of the last eight meetings, including a victory in the Big East tournament championship last season.

That win over UConn sparked Rutgers to its NCAA tournament run.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Connecticut," Stringer said.

Kia Vaughn added 14 points and Matee Ajavon had 13 for Rutgers (19-3, 9-1 Big East), which snapped Connecticut's 34-game regular season winning streak. It was Rutgers' first victory over a top-ranked opponent during the regular season since beating LSU on Jan. 5, 2005.

Renee Montgomery scored 24 points and Tina Charles added 16 points and 10 rebounds to lead Connecticut (21-1, 8-1). The Huskies, who were the last unbeaten team in Division I basketball, last lost in the regular season to North Carolina on Jan. 15, 2007.

"We lost our composure," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "Plain and simple we played dumb at times."

With the game tied at 61, Essence Carson hit two free throws and Ajavon hit a 3-pointer to give Rutgers a 66-61 lead with 2:50 left. After Montgomery scored on a layup to cut the deficit to three, Prince answered with a jumper.

Montgomery missed a 3-pointer on the other end and Connecticut was forced to foul Prince, who hit both free throws to give Rutgers a 70-63 lead with 1:42 left.

Connecticut refused to go away. Maya Moore hit consecutive 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 72-69 with 58 seconds left. After Rutgers turned the ball over on a shot clock violation, Connecticut had one last chance, but turned the ball over on the inbounds.

Carson hit one of two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to seal the win.

Connecticut was facing its first real road test of the season. The Huskies played Stanford and Duke at the Paradise Jam on a neutral court, but hadn't faced a top 10 team on the road. UConn was bothered by the loud, boisterous, sold-out crowd, which was hoping to see the Scarlet Knights pin the first loss of the season on their rivals.

"The Giants did it so can Rutgers!" said one fan's sign in honor of the New York Giants' 17-14 upset of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

"We played in front of big crowds before, we just couldn't pull it out," Moore said.

Prince, whose previous career-high was 29 against Florida last season, wouldn't let the Scarlet Knights' faithful go home unhappy.

"The last time I saw a crowd like this was freshman year against LSU," Carson said. "It was loud and packed the entire time tonight. You can feel the support from the fans and they made us feel great."

With Rutgers trailing 40-30 early in the second half, Prince took over. She scored 14 of the next 16 points for Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights went on a 16-4 run to take a 46-44 lead, their first since scoring the game's opening four points. Prince had back-to-back three-point plays and a 3-pointer during the spurt.

"Epiphanny started making shots," Auriemma said. "Every shot she hit was a tough shot, it wasn't like she had any open looks."

Rutgers is in the midst of a brutal stretch against four straight ranked opponents. The Scarlet Knights split with No. 12 West Virginia and No. 14 Pittsburgh. Now, after knocking off No. 1, they travel to Knoxville on Monday for a rematch with No. 2 Tennessee.

"We don't have time to celebrate and relax," Stringer said. "We have Tennessee next week."