February 08, 2006

(8) Rutgers 60, (4) Connecticut 56

STORRS, Conn. -- Cappie Pondexter and her Rutgers teammates had a hostile crowd and history against them at Connecticut.

The Scarlet Knights didn't flinch.

Pondexter scored 18 points, including a pair of game-sealing free throws with 7.8 seconds left, and the eighth-ranked Scarlet Knights beat No. 4 UConn 60-56 on Tuesday night for their first win on the Huskies' homecourt.

"Every possession was crucial," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "Every point, every missed cut. It was that kind of a game. It's nice to finally win here."

The Scarlet Knights (18-3, 10-0 Big East) hadn't won in 11 games at UConn, a losing streak that spanned a decade. The Huskies (21-3, 10-1) still hold a 18-3 lead in the series, but the five-time national champs have been giving ground to Rutgers of late. The Scarlet Knights won the regular season Big East title last year, snapping UConn's 11-year reign and this year were the preseason pick to win it again.

"I suspect if we continue to work hard, we can continue to hopefully prove ourselves worthy," Stringer said.

Rutgers moved into sole possession of first place in a matchup of the last two Big East unbeatens and did it a venue that's been hard to crack for conference foes. The Huskies were 121-1 in their last 122 Big East home games before Tuesday.

UConn has struggled offensively in the last two games. The Huskies were coming off a sloppy 58-50 win over West Virginia where they shot a season-low 32 percent. They didn't fare much better Tuesday, hitting 19-of-56 for 34 percent as their nine-game winning streak ended. Charde Houston and Mel Thomas, who were averaging a combined 22 points, shot a collective 1-for-16 for just four points.

"We can't run a play. We can't get into any kind of offense," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "For us, it was hard to find people to contribute. (Rutgers) got contributions from a lot of people."

The Scarlet Knights got clutch shots down the stretch from Pondexter and speedy sophomore guard Matee Ajavon.

UConn rallied from a 14-point deficit and was within two points twice in the final four minutes. But Ajavon kept the Huskies at bay with a 3-pointer just as the shot clock expired with 2:28 left for a 58-53 Scarlet Knights' lead.

"It was a clutch play," Ajavon said. "It was a shot that came to me. They were playing tight on Cappie, so I just took the shot."

The Huskies cut the deficit to two again on a driving layup from Barbara Turner with 1:29 remaining.

The sellout crowd of 10,167 stood the rest of the way, but there would be no comeback on this night. Pondexter made sure of that from the foul line.

"It's big to come and win here. It's the first time in history," Pondexter said. "I'm happy for coach Stringer. We look at it as a step toward the Big East title."

Ajavon finished with 16 points and three of Rutgers' eight steals. Michelle Campbell added 12.

Turner led UConn with 17 points and Ann Strother added 15. Crockett had a game-high 13 rebounds. Strother hit two 3-pointers in a 25-15 UConn run to get the Huskies back in it. Pondexter, however, matched her with a 3 each time.

"Cappie Pondexter made some amazing shots, shots that I thought were pretty hard to make," Auriemma said.

Rutgers used an 13-2 run midway through the first half to gain control. Ajavon had two steals in that stretch and converted both into breakaway layups. Pondexter's 3-pointer with 7:45 left in the period gave the Scarlet Knights a 21-10.

UConn stumbled through the much of the half with eight turnovers and poor shooting. The Huskies shot 24 percent (8-for-33) and the Scarlet Knights made the most of those misses.

Sixteen of Rutgers' 23 first-half rebounds were on the defensive glass. The Huskies chipped away at the deficit with a 9-2 run in the closing minutes, fueled by four points from Turner. But the Scarlet Knights scored the next four points to take a 27-21 lead at the break.

In their last meeting, the Huskies beat Rutgers 67-51 for the Big East tournament championship, marred by a controversial he-said, she-said exchange between Pondexter and Auriemma during the post-game handshake. Pondexter pointed at Auriemma after hearing something she felt was objectionable late in the game, and Auriemma insisted he was talking to an official. A league investigation into the incident found nothing improper. Both schools say they've put the incident behind them now.

That spat and Rutgers long losing streak at UConn are now both history.

"We just have to move forward," Turner said. "It does hurt really bad though."

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