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March 28, 2009OKLAHOMA CITY - There were times this season when Rutgers thought it wouldn't be a member of the NCAA Tournament, let alone one of its Sweet 16.
But the Scarlet Knights (21-12) recovered late after a topsy-turvy regular season, earning the tournament's seventh seed in the Oklahoma City Regional. After wins over VCU and second-seeded Auburn on its home court, Rutgers will play sixth-seeded Purdue (24-10) at 7:30 p.m. Sunday night at the Ford Center.
As late as mid-February, however, it didn't look as though the Knights would be anywhere near the NCAA Tournament, aside from as a spectator while four other teams played on its home court for the first couple rounds.
Prior to its game vs. Seton Hall Feb. 18, Coach C. Vivian Stringer's squad was only 14-10, with one of those victories coming over a school called Farmingdale. It was just a middling 5-6 in the Big East.
"I think throughout the middle of the season, Coach Stringer kept saying we are not going to get invited," said center Kia Vaughn at Saturday's pre-game press conferences, "which to me, being a senior, was like a dagger to my heart.
"I kept asking myself 'What could we do? What else are we capable of doing? How many games do we need?' Everything counted. No matter what, I wanted to get here and we are."
Early in the season, Stringer struggled with a roster that included six upperclassmen but also five freshmen, a mixture that didn't immediately gel. Following a six-game December winning streak, Rutgers, which had reached as high as No. 3 in the AP poll, hit the breaks, losing three consecutive to Tennessee, Syracuse and Louisville.
In the loss to the 'Cuse, Stringer's frustration boiled over to the point where she pulled her starters late. That followed the Vols' defeat, in which the Knights had blown a 23-point lead.
But Rutgers' season took a turn for the better prior to its game vs. Seton Hall. Prior, says Stringer, the Knights were playing as a group a individuals, but a team meeting began to bring them closer.
"They had a cheer that said 'Trust. We're all we have,'" said the 14th-year RU coach. "And it was important that we did understand that because prior to that, we probably thought as individuals each person can do their own things.
"I thought they got really scared. I can be the bearer of bad messages, so I don't know that they took what I said seriously, but they did when they began to read in the newspaper and on the Internet. They began to realize they were in trouble and we needed to step it up. From that point forward they never looked back."
The victory over the Hall was the first of four consecutive, a streak that was broken only by UConn. But even that could be taken as a positive, as the Scarlet Knights lost by only 10 to the No. 1 Huskies, who are blowing teams out by an average of 30-plus points a game.
Rutgers beat Seton Hall to open the Big Ten Tournament, then lost in double overtime to then seventh-ranked Louisville. Despite the loss, momentum was in the Knights' favor to begin the NCAA Tournament.
"It's just been an up-and-down season," guard Brittany Ray said. "But I'm fortunate to be in this position right now because we've improved so much as a team, not only on the court but off it.
"We have become so close-knit and I think that has translated on the court. I'm proud that we've gotten this far and I hope we can continue to go further."
While Rutgers' defense has been solid all season - The Knights allow only 54.7 points per game on 37-percent field goal shooting - its on offense where they've clicked as of late.
Junior Epiphanny Prince is averaging 19.7 points per game, including nearly 27, eight rebounds and 3.5 assists in two tournament games. Ray scores 10 points a game and Vaughn averages 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds.
The trio are Rutgers' primary scoring options, as no one else averages more than 6.9 per game. But Prince says she feels she's been getting scoring help of late.
"The last couple games, my teammates have been stepping up and taking shots and giving the team a lot more," she said.
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