Rutgers' Road Less Traveled

By Jeff Lippman - March 19, 2008

If Rutgers' coach C. Vivian Stringer had a motto for her team, Robert Frost would be the author.

Frost penned the famous words, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Coming off a 2007 NCAA Tournament run in which nobody expected the Knights to advance much further than the Sweet 16 yet found glory as national runners-up, this was supposed to be Rutgers' year.

The season was up and down, but it wouldn't be a Rutgers team if that were not so. At times they were spectacular, at other times not so much. Their secret weapon, the 55 defense, can only be used if the team in playing at all cylinders. And unfortunately for the Knights, that didn't happen often this season.

No matter, Rutgers persevered. With talent like Matee Ajavon, Kia Vaughn, Essence Carson and Epiphanny Prince and a coaching genius like Stringer, the Knights had to be a great team this year.

And now, after stubbing their toes in the Big East Tournament and failing to reach the finals where Connecticut was waiting for the rubber match, the Scarlet Knights find themselves in the unenviable position of having to face the hated Huskies far sooner than anyone could have predicted.

"I didn't think there was any way on God's earth that this would have happened," Stringer said in her fiery way when asked about possibly meeting top-seeded UConn in the Elite Eight. "It's not that I am afraid of Connecticut, I am just stunned and shocked.

"This is a mind-blower. I am totally stunned. If I were a betting woman, I would have lost all my money today. I would have thought that we would have hooked up with Tennessee before we played Connecticut. I am stunned."

Had the Knights made the Big East finals, maybe their seeding would have been different. Maybe they wouldn't have had to beat UConn so early. But you won't find Rutgers complaining.

They have Frost's words echoing in their ears.

Rutgers doesn't do anything conventionally. While Maryland, UNC and UConn are running their opponents out of the building, the Knights win by slowing everything down and forcing you to play their tough style. Stringer is a chess master. She knows her talent isn't that of Tennessee. She doesn't have a Candace Parker. But her players do have heart, and lots of it.

Triumphs are sweeter when the road to victory isn't an easy one. And the Knights are excited to get started down that long and winding road.

"That just fired me up, and I think that's good," Stringer said of being in the same bracket as the Huskies. "At the end of the day we have to beat the teams in front of us. This is an opportunity for us to play the game we never had a chance to play for the Big East Tournament."

In fact, if you ask Essence Carson, the senior would rather play Connecticut sooner rather than later. "You shouldn't look at it like anything negative," Carson said. "You should look at it as something that will make us stronger along the journey as long as we take care of business."

Rutgers is anything but conventional in their style, and so it makes perfect sense that they don't think conventionally, either. They want pain. They don't want to inherit a championship, or fall into one, they want to earn it. It's not worth winning if you didn't break a sweat and lose some blood in the process.

"I won't back down and my team won't back down," Stringer offered as her closing sentiments. "I've seen enough in the past two years to last me a lifetime. After a while, if anyone was as fired up as me, you would win. In spite of things, you would just win.

"I will not sleep. I will be driven. This team will be driven and we will give our best. The greatest story that will be told has not yet been told."

Those are some pretty prophetic words, but Rutgers' was the best story of last year's NCAA Tournament, and should the Scarlet Knights have the same success this season, the story will once again be great.

And the story will be great because the Scarlet Knights took the road less traveled, and that was the difference.

Posted by Jeff Lippman at 11:35 AM on March 19, 2008

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