March 02, 2005

No. 9 Rutgers Wins First Big East Title

VILLANOVA, Pa. - Move over, UConn. There's a new champ in the Big East. Matee Ajavon scored 14 points and Michelle Campbell added 13, helping No. 9 Rutgers win its first Big East Conference regular-season title outright with a 51-39 win over Villanova on Tuesday night.

The Scarlet Knights (23-5, 14-2) shared the 1998-99 crown with Connecticut, which has won or shared 11 straight regular-season titles.

Rutgers, winners of 18 of its last 21 games, earned its first No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament that begins Saturday at the Hartford Civic Center.

Liad Suez had 12 points for the Wildcats (17-10, 10-6), scoring just two in the second half.

Villanova has a recent history of knocking off Top 10 teams, including the No. 1 Huskies in last year's season finale and then-No. 4 Notre Dame last month.

Rutgers could never really pull away from the Wildcats, thought it hardly mattered. Cappie Pondexter scored six straight points for the Scarlet Knights late in the second half, helping push a four-point lead to 11.

Essence Carson had 10 rebounds for Rutgers, who had a 40-24 edge on the boards.

About 500 Rutgers fans — all clad in red — started chanting "Big East title!" as the seconds ticked away. The team huddled at midcourt and waved to the fans after the game.

The Scarlet Knights certainly had reason to be happy. The expectations for Rutgers, which was 21-12 a year ago, increased markedly with three wins over Top 10 teams in eight days.

The Scarlet Knights, which finished the regular season with wins over seven ranked teams, started their string of upsets with a win at home over then-No. 8 Tennessee on Dec. 29. Four days later in Texas, they rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to beat the then-No. 4 team. They rallied from 13 down to knock off previously unbeaten and top-ranked LSU.

Now, Rutgers has something to show for those wins.

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