ASU Can't Match Rutgers, 64-45, Fall Short Of Final Four

March 26, 2007

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - 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.'

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