One Trio Against Another

PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The fate of the No. 11 California Golden Bears rests in the hands - and on the surgically-repaired right knee - of reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year Devanei Hampton when they meet No. 6 Rutgers as part of the East Coast swing.

In the first game of their cross-country trip, the Bears defeated Princeton, 68-42, and Hampton saw her first action since her Nov. 9 surgery. In 12 minutes of play, Hampton scored nine points and grabbed two rebounds.

If Cal is to upset the Scarlet Knights at their home at the RAC, Hampton's production in her second game will have to significantly improve from her first.

Of course, Cal isn't without star power in Hampton's absence, in fact, fellow junior Ashley Walker, who actually led the Bears in points and rebounds last season, is having a superb season averaging almost 20 points and over 11 rebounds per contest for the 8-1 team from Berkeley.

Before the season, Cal tabbed its three All-American candidates, Hampton, Walker and junior point guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, as being "So Berkeley," meaning they play with a wild and free upbeat style. It also means that they had been looking forward to all getting on the court together as the trio are all good friends.

Gray-Lawson and Hampton were even high school teammates.

Last season, a few games in, Gray-Lawson suffered a season-ending injury and this was going to be the year they would reunite on the court. But Hampton ultimately got hurt as well.

After one game that allowed Hampton to get back into the flow of action, the 6-foot-3 star will need her A game to beat the Scarlet Knights. And it isn't going to be pretty.

It never is when Rutgers plays.

The Scarlet Knights are allowing just over 48 points per game this season and limiting their opponents to shooting a lowly 32 percent from the field and an even-worse 23 percent from deep. Their defense isn't the big-play kind, it's the suffocate-you-until-you-can't-breathe variety.

During last year's run to the National Championship game, the 6-2 Knights, like Cal, relied most heavily on an exciting trio of players in junior Kia Vaughn and seniors Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson. But this season, a sophomore has stolen the scoring duties away and let the trio concentrate on what they do best - play defense.

Epiphanny Prince once scored 100 points in a high school contest, and although that's not happening anytime soon, the New York City native is averaging over 13 a game and can put up points in bunches. She can hit the three, but standing only 5-foot-9, would much prefer to take the ball hard to the rack. Or is that RAC? Either way...

It's always a chess match when C. Vivian Stringer is coaching a basketball game and Rutgers' pieces fit better than almost any other team in the nation. They don't win pretty, they don't win big, but they win, and that is the most important thing.

Cal is a team that is just now beginning to take the shape that it will ultimately find itself in come March, the Knights are much more further along in their development. Both teams have a lot of talent and are quite similar, but expect Rutgers to have more than one advantage in this one.

The last time the two teams met was way back on Nov. 24, 2002, on the left coast, and the result was one in which I expect tonight's to be very similar. That night the Scarlet Knights defeated the home team Bears, 56-49, in a close defensive battle.

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