March 26, 2007

(4) Rutgers 64, (3) Arizona St. 45

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Rutgers didn't have much of a reason to believe it could be a Final Four team a few months ago.

The Scarlet Knights didn't have any seniors, or seemingly any chance. Not without Cappie Pondexter, not after starting the season by losing four of seven. And not with a difficult draw in the NCAA tournament.

Believe now, Rutgers.

The scrappy Scarlet Knights are headed to their second Final Four, using a dominating performance from center Kia Vaughn and inspired play from the rest of the roster to claim a 64-45 victory over Arizona State on Monday night in the Greensboro Regional finals.

"It was sort of like a dream where we just felt ... as long as we stuck to our game plan -- and that's to continue to believe in ourselves -- then we can continue to get it done," forward Essence Carson said. "This entire run through the NCAA tournament has been sort of unreal, but at the same time we understand that all the hard work we put in put us there."

Vaughn had 17 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while owning the lane. Matee Ajavon had 20 points, Carson added 11 and Epiphanny Prince had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Scarlet Knights (26-8), who led by 24 and held a 48-26 rebounding advantage in winning their seventh straight.

"They put up a fight, they put up a good one," said Vaughn, who at 6-foot-4 was at least two inches taller than any of the Sun Devils. "I had the advantage only because I kept working. ... They didn't let me get anything easy. I worked hard. I really did work. I had elbows everywhere, in the back. ... I just had to be strong and take control."

And largely because the Sun Devils had no answer inside for Vaughn, the Scarlet Knights can pack for Cleveland, where they will face LSU on Sunday in the Final Four. LSU beat Connecticut 73-50 to advance from the Fresno Regional.

"We definitely tried to go at her, but we didn't go at her very smart," said Aubree Johnson, who had two of her shots blocked by Vaughn. "She's obviously a great shot blocker."

The fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights almost saw their season end Saturday when top-seeded Duke had a chance to win it in the final second. But ACC player of the year Lindsey Harding missed two free throws with 0.1 second left and Rutgers escaped with a stunning 53-52 upset.

The youthful Knights -- who have five freshmen on the roster -- had no trouble dodging a letdown, thoroughly dominating third-seeded Arizona State and pulling another upset to reach their first Final Four since 2000.

"This has to be right there at the top, if not the top," coach C. Vivian Stringer said.

The players hammed it up at midcourt, dancing as they donned championship caps and T-shirts while thanking the several hundred fans who made the trip to Tobacco Road.

Stringer, the first coach to lead three programs to the Final Four, is headed to college basketball's biggest stage for the fourth time.

This run came with a Rutgers team that became the lowest seed to reach the Final Four since 2004, when both fourth-seeded LSU and seventh-seeded Minnesota advanced that far.

This game was supposed to be a rematch of a November game in the Virgin Islands, but the game was canceled when the 15-year-old brother of Johnson died of an enlarged heart, and players and coaches from both sides credited fate with setting up this matchup.

"After everything this team has been through this year, I was just going to tell them to have fun," Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said as her voice cracked. "I never thought we would make the tournament. With all the things we went through this year, I never thought we could do this. This is the most incredible team I've ever been a part of."

Rutgers used tough defense to take command, holding Arizona State to one field goal during the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second half.

The Scarlet Knights gradually increased their lead with a basket here and a free throw there, all the while using occasionally relentless full-court pressure to turn the tables on the press-minded Sun Devils.

Prince's foul shot gave the Scarlet Knights their first double-figure lead of the game, 39-29, with 13:11 to play, and it never got much tighter after that.

Kirsten Thompson pulled Arizona State to 41-32 on a turnaround jumper moments later, but Rutgers reeled off three straight baskets: a 3-pointer by Prince, a turnaround jumper from Vaughn and a jump shot by Carson that made it 48-32 with 8:51 left and all but sealed it.

Briann January had 12 points in returning to the starting lineup after suffering a concussion for the Sun Devils (31-5), who advanced deeper into the tournament than any other team in school history. Before this season, Arizona State had never made it past the round of 16 in three tries.

The Sun Devils reverted to the poor shooting that plagued them in the first two rounds of the tournament. Arizona State, which shot just 36 percent in wins over UC Riverside and Louisville, was optimistic after making more than half of its shots against Bowling Green.

But those struggles returned when they could least be afforded, with Rutgers holding the Sun Devils to 32.7 percent shooting. They finished 5-of-17 from beyond the arc, and came close to a dubious scoring record in the regional finals -- barely surpassing Texas Tech's miserable 44-point performance against Tennessee in 2000.

"We took wide-open shots, and we missed," Turner Thorne said. "The 3s were open. We just took too many."

(3) LSU 73, (1) Connecticut 50

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- The talk coming into the NCAA tournament was about the coach LSU was missing. It's the center who is still dominating the middle that lifted the Lady Tigers to their fourth straight Final Four.

Sylvia Fowles overpowered Connecticut with 23 points, 15 rebounds and an intimidating defensive performance that led third-seeded LSU to a 73-50 victory over the top-seeded Huskies on Monday night in the Fresno Regional final.

A team in turmoil heading into the tournament after head coach Pokey Chatman abruptly resigned March 7 amid allegations of improper conduct with a former player, LSU (30-7) shook off any distractions and won four straight games under acting coach Bob Starkey.

The longtime assistant for both the men's and women's programs at LSU has an undefeated record as a head coach and looks to end his career that way with two more wins next week in Cleveland. Starkey said he has no aspirations to become the full-time coach.

LSU will play Rutgers in Sunday's national semifinal. The Scarlet Knights (26-8) beat Arizona State 64-45 earlier Monday night.

Connecticut (32-4) will be left watching the Final Four for the third straight year after making it that far the previous five seasons. This matches UConn's longest Final Four drought since making its first in 1991.

It was the Huskies' most lopsided tournament loss since losing 75-47 to Vanderbilt in the second round in 1992.

The Huskies, who won 72-71 at LSU last month, had no answers for Fowles, who dominated the game right from the start.

With long arms, quick feet, and a 6-foot-6 frame, Fowles is an intimidating presence in the middle of the defense. She blocked six shots, altered many others, had three steals, deflected passes and forced the Huskies into bad shots and turnovers.

The two players Fowles guarded most often -- Tina Charles and Kaili McLaren -- each went 0-for-5 from the field. UConn shot just 33 percent overall.

Fowles even showed off her passing skills with a pretty backdoor assist to RaShonta LeBlanc midway through the second half.

Fowles also got some help with some outside shooting from Allison Hightower and Ashley Thomas. Hightower hit three 3-pointers in the first half and Thomas hit a pair in the second after the Huskies cut LSU's lead to 12. The Lady Tigers led by at least 10 points for the final 26 minutes.

"Everybody always double teams Sylvia," Thomas said. "We knew we had to come out tonight and knock down shots. I did it and my teammates did it."

Thomas and Hightower scored 12 points apiece for LSU and Erica White added 11.

Renee Montgomery led UConn with 17 points and Mel Thomas added 13.

Fowles scored nine points during an 18-4 run early in the game to give the Lady Tigers a 22-10 lead. She outscored UConn on her own through the first 11:54, scoring 13 points to the Huskies' 12.

Hightower then hit a pair of 3-pointers during a 10-0 run that expanded LSU's lead to 34-17 with 3:46 left in the half.

Fowles had three steals and two blocks in the half and her presence inside helped force UConn into 13 first-half turnovers.

Houston committed five of them, including a pair of travels early in the game with Fowles lurking nearby. The Huskies went scoreless for nearly 5 minutes during the key LSU run.

UConn scored the final five points of the half to go into the break down 34-22 -- matching its biggest halftime deficit of the season and marking the third straight game the Huskies trailed at the half.

The attendance was 3,046 in an arena that seats about 15,556, as few fans from the two schools from the eastern half of the country made the long trip to California.

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