Rutgers rallies to knock Notre Dame out of tournament
By KERRY SMITH
Assistant Sports Editor
Rutgers knows about battling back against Notre Dame.
When the two teams met in the regular season, the Scarlet Knights dug themselves a 19-point hole and fought back to gain the lead, only to lose in overtime.
But this time it was different.
With the Irish up by nine with four minutes left in regulation in Monday night's Big East semifinal tournament game, it looked as though the No. 6 team in the nation would advance to meet Connecticut in the finals.
But the Knights had a different idea — they thought of their recent overtime loss to the Irish on home turf and never looked back again. With 12-straight points by the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers tipped the scales in its favor for the first time since the opening minutes of the first half with 43 seconds left in regulation. The Irish forced overtime in the final seconds, but could not defend against an explosive Rutgers' offense, losing 81-72.
"The [regular season] loss was a heartbreaker," said Scarlet Knights' guard Shawnetta Stewart. "It feels real good to beat them tonight. We really stuck together through the adversity on the court."
Having worked the rust out of their game in Sunday's quarterfinal contest against the Miami Hurricanes, the Irish stepped on the court ready to play.
But so did the Scarlet Knights.
After trailing by a point, 25-24 at halftime, the Knights knew they needed a new weapon to distance themselves from the Irish. They found it during the second half in senior guard Usha Gilmore.
Down by eight with 14:28 left in regulation, Gilmore came off the bench and scored nine straight Knights' points to keep her squad within a basket of the Irish, 40-38.
"When my shots started falling, I said to myself, `It's about time,'" said Gilmore. "I've been struggling with my shooting for some time."
But as Gilmore's streak wore off, momentum began to swing the way of the Irish. Notre Dame took advantage of Rutgers' center Tammy Sutton-Browne's absence on the court because of a fourth foul and took the ball inside to run up its lead to eight with seven minutes left to play.
But with three minutes remaining, Sutton-Browne checked back in and momentum changed again. Shutting down the Irish in the lane, the Knights dominated on offense and took the lead 61-58 with 43.3 seconds remaining.
As Irish guard Danielle Green drove down the lane with a clear shot at the hoop, Stewart sent guard Alicia Ratay to the line with an off-ball foul. The stoic freshman nailed the two free throws, cutting the deficit to one, 61-60.
The Irish fouled Stewart immediately on the in-bounds play, sending her to the line with 34 seconds remaining. The senior hit both, pushing the Knights' lead to two, 62-60. Irish center Ruth Riley came up with the rebound off Stewart's missed foul shot, giving the Irish possession of the ball.
Danielle Green tried her luck in the lane again and was fouled by Stewart. The senior hit both free throws to tie the game.
Rutgers had one last chance to score in regulation, but a lay-up from Stewart bounced around the rim and out, sending the game into overtime.
The Knights took control on offense in overtime, leading the whole way.
"We just wanted it more tonight," said Stewart. "We out-hustled them the whole time."
Finding themselves down, the Irish were forced to foul, but the Knights were solid from the line, distancing themselves from the Irish by nine points with a minute left to play.
The Irish could not find a good shot as the Knights tightened their defense as the final seconds ticked off the clock and Rutgers advanced to the final round of the tournament.
Riley led the Irish with 20 points from the paint and Ratay chipped in 15 from the outside to pace the squad.
"Most teams have double teamed me all year," said Riley of the Knights' defense. "I was just happy to be able to score or get the ball to Julie [Henderson] or Niele [Ivey] when I could."
Stewart directed the Knights' offense with 23 points and Sutton-Brown added 17.
The Irish struggled on the boards all night. The Knights outrebounded the Irish 39-27 and took advantage of many second and third looks on offense.
Rutgers, which avenged regular season losses to Villanova and Notre Dame in the tournament, will have a chance to make up for its loss to Connecticut earlier in the season when the Knights meet the No. 1 team tonight in the tournament finals.
"We're just trying to survive and advance," said senior Knights' guard Tasha Pointer, who had eight points Monday. "We're just taking it one game at a time."
The Irish have almost two weeks off to regroup before they begin their run for the NCAA title next week.
"I don't know [what this does to our tournament hopes]. I don't know how the NCAA thinks," said Irish head coach Muffet McGraw of her team's loss. "I think we deserve a home game, but we're probably a second or third seed."
The NCAA selection committee will release the tournament seedings Sunday.
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, March 7, 2000