Monday, April 2, 2007
Rutgers not buying into underdog role
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
CLEVELAND -- You might have heard by now that Rutgers' players ditched their cell phones in March, all the better to concentrate on the task at hand. Maybe they've deprived themselves of the Internet, television, radio and newspapers, too.
Because the Scarlet Knights don't seem to be aware that they are supposedly underdogs in Tuesday night's NCAA title game (ESPN, coverage begins at 7:30 ET).
Or maybe they are aware and just don't care. Good for them. And guess what? Tennessee isn't thinking that way, either. Pat Summitt doesn't coach any fools. She hasn't needed to point out to her players that Rutgers' hit list in the NCAA Tournament includes two teams that beat Tennessee this season: Duke and LSU.
In meeting with the media Monday, the kids in orange said they just needed "to play Tennessee basketball." The kids in red (OK, scarlet) said they just needed "to play Rutgers basketball."
Frankly, I think we all just hope they play "put the ball in the basket" basketball, since we didn't see enough of that in Sunday's semifinals. There are probably some people still looking at the Rutgers-LSU score and saying, "That was at halftime, right? When are they going to update it?"
Essence Carson says Rutgers' belief in itself is something "we might have lacked in past years."
The fact that LSU (35) and North Carolina (50) were held to their lowest point totals of the season during the semifinals tells you much about what kind of matchup we might get in the final.
But whatever kind of game it is -- and I have a suspicion it's going to be better than the semifinals -- let's face it: This is as big as it gets for these two groups of players.
"I believe that we're all prepared," Rutgers junior Essence Carson said. "We're rolling, and we're just believing in ourselves. I believe that's something we might have lacked in past years."
Tennessee senior Sidney Spencer said that when North Carolina was up by 12 in the semifinal, "I thought that I didn't know what I was going to do with myself if that's how it ended up.
"But in that media timeout with about eight minutes to go, Pat said, 'We are going to play on April 3 for a national championship.' She said, 'We have to believe.' The way she said it was with so much passion."
If you're looking for a predictable "favorite," of course, it's Tennessee.
Rutgers is a No. 4 seed, Tennessee a No. 1 seed. Rutgers has lost eight games this season, Tennessee three. Rutgers doesn't have any national championships; Tennessee has six. Rutgers had nobody on the Kodak All-American team; Tennessee had Candace Parker, who also won the Wade Trophy.
So you get the picture. Rutgers was supposed to be done more than a week ago, going out to Greensboro No. 1 seed Duke in the Sweet 16. For that matter, some thought the Scarlet Knights wouldn't get past fifth-seeded Michigan State in the second round on the Spartans' home floor.
"We don't really think about it," Rutgers sophomore Heather Zurich said. "People might think of us as underdogs, but ultimately we're just believing in ourselves."
From a strategic standpoint, both teams expect to keep doing what has worked so far. Tennessee forced North Carolina into 29 turnovers in the semis, but the Tar Heels really don't have many ball handlers comfortable against high-level pressure. In fact, 17 of those turnovers came from North Carolina's guards.
Rutgers is stronger in that department, however. Matee Ajavon might be the primary ball handler, but Epiphanny Prince has helped a lot. And Prince has not had more than two turnovers in a game since Feb. 20. In her past 10 games, she has just 10 turnovers.
Plus, Carson was in the point guard role earlier this season when Ajavon was out with a stress fracture. And Zurich has done both guard and forward duties, too.
So Tennessee knows forcing turnovers against Rutgers is likely to be tougher than it was against North Carolina. At least on paper, though, it might be a little easier -- a relative term -- for Tennessee to rebound against Rutgers. North Carolina came into the Final Four as one of the top rebounding teams in the country, yet Tennessee still won that battle of the boards, barely, 43-42.
Rutgers and Tennessee each had sort of hokey motivational stuff to prod them this season. In both cases, it seemed to work.
Tennessee did team-building exercises, which some folks kind of enjoy and others just grit their teeth and endure. Alexis Hornbuckle explained that in one of them, the players were divided in two. One group was blindfolded and told its members could speak out loud. The other group was not blindfolded but could not talk. The exercise was this: The group that could see was supposed to take the group that couldn't see and line it up in a certain order.
The problems were twofold: People who suddenly can't see are afraid to move, so they were resisting their teammates trying to push them into place. And the second issue was that "seers" couldn't say out loud why they were moving the others. So the blindfolded folks resisted all the more.
Hornbuckle laughed while describing how it almost turned into a wrestling match.
"As a competitor, you think everything is a competition," she said. "So it was about getting us to break down our competitive barriers and work together as a team.
"By the way, we failed at that exercise because we were too competitive. They didn't want us to touch them because they thought we were trying to get them to do something that could be to our advantage."
Ultimately, though, Hornbuckle said the lesson was learned: Trust your teammates.
As for Rutgers, the motivational ploy was a very old one -- the Scarlet Knights were "kicked out" of their locker room and had no access to their practice gear for roughly two months.
Kia Vaughn said they would dress in the bathroom or in the hallway -- or just wear their clothes to practice. She joked that at one point, she wanted to get something out of the locker room and considered sneaking in there while "hiding" in a laundry bag. (Imagine what a sitcom moment that might have been.)
Finally, Stringer decided her team was living up to her standards and told former Rutgers player Chelsea Newton, who's on her staff, that it was OK for the players to use their locker room again.
"And I said, 'I'm not going in there; somebody better tell Coach Stringer she has to come down here and tell me,' " said Vaughn, who didn't want to get in trouble.
Of course, all of the above might have happened at other programs and not resulted in a trip to the national championship game. But these were among the many stories the Tennessee and Rutgers players told Monday as they tried to recount in colorful detail the amazing seasons both of them have had.
And both believe that to win a national championship is their destiny. But only one of them will be right about that.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.