By Mel Greenberg
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – It’s on to the next major event for Rutgers Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer who finally cracked the 900 victory club on her fifth try Tuesday night as the Scarlet Knights snapped a four-game losing streak to beat South Florida 68-56 in a key Big East game and allow a home crowd of 1,304, her players and family to celebrate her milestone.
In a rare showing of offensive performance the 20-point scoring total was hit by both senior Erica Wheeler, with a season high 24 points and Betnijah Laney, who scored 20 for the Scarlet Knights (15-12, 6-8 Big East).
South Florida (19-8, 8-6), which upset nationally-ranked Louisville and Syracuse last week, made Rutgers an underdog for the fifth straight time but the Scarlet Knights were able to overcome 23 turnovers by shooting 51 percent for the game defending the Bulls into a 29 percent effort. Rutgers also had a 43-33 rebounding advantage.
A 45-42 upset loss at Seton Hall ruined Stringer’s projected first chance to get her 900th win at home and join North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell, who joined the club earlier this month, along with retired Texas coach Jody Conradt and Tennessee coach emeritus Pat Summitt, who retired last spring with over 1,000 wins.
Summitt stepped down after previously announcing in late August, 2011, that she was battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer type.
After getting 899 at home against Cincinnati, a Rutgers rally died in Chicago with DePaul getting the winning points with 10 seconds left. Then No. 3 Connecticut wiped out the next chance to get 900 at home followed by Rutgers road losses at Syracuse and St. John’s before recording the win against USF.
“It was mean’t to be that we would come back here,” Stringer said of the events that allowed her to win number 900 at home.
“I’m just glad to be part of it,” Laney said of her coach’s milestone but in doing so it became a family affair because her mother Yolanda Laney, now a lawyer, was a major part of Stringer’s early victories coaching at Cheyney State.
In between came additional success at Iowa. Stringer was the first men’s or women’s coach to take three different teams to the NCAA Final Four, guiding Cheyney to the very first championship in 1982, later following with Iowa and then twice with Rutgers in a homecoming appearance in 2000 at the then-named First Union Center in South Philadelphia and later in 2007 in Cleveland.
In the latter event, Rutgers made a surprising run to the championship game before losing to Tennessee. With a youthful but talented squad the Scarlet Knights got rocked early that season before reversing mode with a run that included an upset of Connecticut in the Big East title game and likewise to Duke, in the Sweet 16 regional semifinal in Greensboro, N.C.
This season has also been a struggle and the question now is whether Tuesday’s win will be too little too late and the Scarlet Knights get bypassed for the first time in 11 seasons by the NCAA committee.
Of course, Rutgers can take it out of the committee’s hands by winning the Big East automatic bid early next month in Hartford, Conn. But that might be asking much.
Stringer had not wanted to talk much about the pending achievement, especially with the team struggling to make the NCAA field causing scrutiny of a recent decline amid a salary of over $1 million, making her the highest paid state employee in New Jersey.
With her contract due to end in June of 2014, which will be the time as of now Rutgers moves to the Big Ten, unless it happens this summer, athletic director Tim Pernetti has turned aside media attempts to discuss the situation.
He was here at the finish, however, to present Stringer with a 900-numbered jersey in a frame while the crowd shouted CVS and .900. Very late in the game when it became apparent Rutgers was going to win, signs saying “900 and counting” were handed to the crowd.
At the final buzzer, Stringer’s players encircled her and the group moved toward center court for the presentation while a large group of electronic media and photographers stood on the court to capture the moment.
“I think it’s beyond words,” Stringer, whose record is 900-330, said at the postgame press conference. “I’m happy it’s over. I can hardly breathe. It’s over and now I can just coach and smile, and get back to what I love to do because it’s never been about the numbers.”
Division I men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Bob Knight (retired), and Jim Boeheim have also won 900 or more games.
“When I look back on my life, this team, probably this year, best reflects what 900 has been,” Stringer.
“It helped me to remember it was never easy. It really, really has caused me to reflect. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been great and I’m really happy to be part of it. “
Though the outcome seemed destined in the closing minutes, Stringer wasn’t ready to take anything for granted.
“We have a saying about the fat lady singing,” Stringer smiled. “She wasn’t signing yet, but she was humming.”
Stringer is now in her 18th season in a coaching career that spans 41 years.
The game against South Florida was the first in a while in which things came together and Rutgers was not bedeviled by deep deficits, early, or near misses at the finish.
“I was really proud of the effort,” Stringer said. “You could see the team didn’t have any doubts in their minds as they rebounded, and played great defense and talked. They brought it together.
“I would never be so bold as to assume that everything’s going to be easy because (USF coach) Jose (Fernandez) has an outstanding team. This is a great team. This is the same team that took Notre Dame to the last couple of minutes.”
Fernandez on his twitter account later congratulated Stringer’s achievement and noted her team had played well against his.
Wheeler said her teammates finally cashed in on some good practices to translate them into a win.
“I told them that the way we practice is the way we need to play. I feel that since I was fired up, my team fed off of me. They also helped out. It was about having faith and never giving up. That’s one thing (Stringer) teaches us.”
Though some believe the win gets Rutgers back to the NCAA bubble, it’s still the bubble and the Scarlet Knights are not on the high side if the mathematics gets more emphasized by the committee over the basketball.
For example, Rutgers, whose RPI is hovering around 64 in several simulations, though the schedule is strong with a ranking of 36, should beat Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to complete the regular season before the Big East tournament.
However, the RPI will be dragged down because Cincinnati has a RPI of 172 while Pittsburgh is at 234.
So something of value will need to come out of the Big East.
“Everything will take care of itself,” Stringer said of the games ahead. “This was a major win, and it’s important to win down the (stretch) as it is right now.”
Of course, the WNIT would be glad to take Rutgers in its 64-team field if the Scarlet Knights do not make the NCAA field.
However, Stringer traditionally has had no desire for her own team to participate; though some will argue just the experience would be valuable for her youthful roster.
And if that debate arises, as it has in the past, the angst of these past weeks in getting to 900 will become a thing of the past. Up here in recent seasons, the words may change but the same melody seems to linger over and over.
A key Villanova game in the Big East and the three local teams in the Atlantic 10 account for the four games on the PhilahoopsW card Wednesday night.
The Wildcats, contending for a berth in the NCAA tournament and looking to finish in the upper portion of the conference after being picked for 10th by the Big East coaches in the preseason, host St. John’s at 7 p.m. at the Pavilion.
The visiting Red Storm are also trying to work their way into the NCAA field and looking to make a similar closing impact as the Big East competition winds down to the final positions.
Meanwhile, Saint Joseph’s, trying to finish in the top four of the Atlantic 10, hosts Massachusetts at Hagan Arena at 7 p.m. The Hawks are a strong favorite in the game on senior night but they cannot afford to slip, considering their suddenly downgraded perception as just a bubble team.
Furthermore, they wrap up Sunday at No. 12 Dayton, the conference frontrunner, which has yet to lose.
Duquesne is in the standings fight with Saint Joseph’s and visits La Salle, which is in danger of not making the field since only 12 of the 16 gain participation when the tournament opens on Hawk Hill a week from Friday.
The Dukes are coached by former Penn State, WNBA and Olympic star Suzie Mcconnell-Serio.
Temple visits Butler, one of two new members. The farewell tour of the conference by the Owls before they head to the Big East this summer has not gone well.
In the logjam, the Owls claim neither this game nor Sunday’s senior home game against Fordham is a must-win, that they can still make the A-10 field.
But if they want to land in the WNIT field, they have to make up three games to get back to .500, which means they would have to surprise their way to the A-10 title game.