By Mel Greenberg
On the 10th anniversary of Villanova’s greatest moment the Wildcats came up with another signature win in history Saturday while Rutgers, one game removed from a milestone triumph for Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer, turned in another signature setback in Big East competition and has its NCAA hopes down to a flicker.
It was a decade ago that Villanova upset Connecticut at Rutgers to win the Big East title and end what was then the Huskies’ NCAA record win streak of 70 games.
That mark along with the men’s all-time mark was topped by the UConn women two seasons ago when the Huskies reached 90 straight before being stopped ast Stanford.
This time around Villanova has had some surprising wins after being picked 10th in the preseason poll by the conference’s coaches, even though the Wildcats have also had some tough losses.
Up at Syracuse Saturday in the Orange’s Carrier Dome, however, Villanova survived a triple overtime encounter to complete a sweep with a 77-75 win that could all but lock the Wildcats (19-9, 8-7) into a slot in the NCAA tournament.
The Big East regular season as we have known it ends Monday night for the last time with a showdown at the top of the conference with first-place and second-ranked Notre Dame holding as perfect conference mark and hosting second-place and third-ranked Connecticut.
Villanova will finish up with a chance for revenge as the Wildcats celebrate senior night at the Pavilion playing Providence, which had an incredible rally to beat coach Harry Perretta’s team in Rhode Island earlier in the season.
Before the opening tip, the school will pay tribute to departing seniors Laura Sweeney, Rachel Roberts and Megan Pearson.
Sweeney led the way Saturday with a career-high 29 points, while Roberts scored 20, and Devon Kane came off the bench to score 10 points against the squad that was 22nd in the country in last week’s Associated Press poll.
Kayla Alexander and Carmen Tyson-Thomas each had 22 points and 11 rebounds for Syracuse (22-6, 10-5), which has been a mild surprise in the conference in its final season before heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Villanova also has its bags packed with six other Big East members, though thast group’s affiliation is expected to retain the Big East monicker.
With Pittsburgh also headed to the ACC and Notre Dame, perhaps, given an OK to also head to the ACC a year ahead of schedule, they’ll be signing soulful songs in what amounts to a massive goodbye party at the Big East women’s tournament, which begins Friday in the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
Perretta, who has coached over three decades and has been part of the Big East with Villanova since the early 1980s, was asked where Saturday’s win ranked perhaps after the conference title in 2003 and getting to the Final Four of the former AIAW in 1982.
“I know it was pretty big and pretty important,” Perrretta responded of only the second triple overtime game in Big East women regular season history following the extended action in which Miami topped Georgetown 90-88 on February Feb. 9, 1993. “Perhaps it was meant to be.”
While Villanova is living on the high side and poised to be in the NCAA field after a short absence, Rutgers, which wraps up at home with struggling Pittsburgh Monday night, is thinking its fate can’t be meant to be.
An unforeseen 45-42 setback at state rival and neighbor Seton Hall last month enraged the fan base and trip-levered Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer’s drive
to win her 900th game into a delay of five games while the Scarlet Knights endured a four-game losing streak.
She finally reached her moment last Wednesday as the fourth women’s coach in Division I and seventh overall including men’s coaches to get 900.
But the elephant in the room during the focus on getting 900 was the danger of not making the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years.
However, in beating South Florida, which was coming off some impressive wins, it looked like the Scarlet Knights could make a late rush against two Big East basement dwellers and pick up some more wins in the Big East tournament.
But on Saturday night host Cincinnati had other ideas with a closing rally to emerge with a 56-48 triumph at the Bearcats’ Fifth Third Arena.
The win was one of the finer ones for Cincinnati coach Jamelle Eliiott, a fromer UConn star and assistant to Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma.
Several weeks earlier last month, Rutgers (15-13, 6-9 Big East) rallied to beat Cincinnati (12-16, 4-11) in what would have been Stringer’s 900th win had not the loss at Seton Hall occurred.
Erica Wheeler had as team high 15 points Saturday for the Scarlet Knights while Betnijah Laney scored 14 in what was Rutgers’ first loss ever to the Bearcats.
Now the Scarlet Knights face a Pittsburgh squad (9-19. 0-15) under veteran Agnus Berenato that hasn’t won a conference game in two seasons, though several games have come down to the closing minutes to be decided.
Overall, Pittsburgh last won, beating Old Dominion 55-54 in Norfolk, Va., on Jan. 2.
The projection now is to go into the Big East tournament possibly in the 8-10 seed slots meeting either South Florida or Villanova and then if still alive having to face the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals which will be UConn or Notre Dame.
And even if Rutgers wins Monday night, the Panthers RPI is so low, the Scarlet Knights, in the 70s with their own RPIs, won’t be getting much traction.
The suspense will end after Monday’s games conclude and then the next chapter to this wild season on and off the court will begin when the pairings are revealed a little while later.