Aimed And Focused

by
Samori Benjamin

Rutgers Senior guard Matee Ajavon drives hard to the hoop.

New York City and all its surrounding areas prides itself on being a hoops town. A place where the best basketball is played and where the most astute fans reside. The area has not seen a hoops champion in quite some time. Not since the 1972-73 New York Knicks. These days the Knicks seem to be stuck in stagnant as they struggle through another tough season, the New Jersey Nets look to be days away from trading Jason Kidd, the heart and soul of their team, and the major men's college basketball teams, St. John's, Seton Hall and Rutgers are all wallowing in mediocrity.

The best basketball story in 2008 features the same cast that had the best story of 2007. However, most of the public slept on it a year ago, and it looks like they are about to make the same mistake this time around. Many know the story of the Rutgers woman's basketball team making it to the championship game last April. But it was the way they got there that was impressive. A run every bit as impressive as the one we are seeing from the New York Giants during their drive to the super bowl that is making New York City so proud.

A season ago the Rutgers woman were coming off a 2005-06 campaign that saw them reach the elite eight of the NCAA tournament. They lost their star guard Cappie Pondexter who was drafted 2nd overall in the 2006 WNBA draft.  They then opened the season losing 4 of their first 6 games, which are more losses than they have totaled so far this season. The Lady Scarlet Knights then turned things around winning 20 of their final 23 regular season games before entering the end of the season big east tournament and stunning everyone with an upset over perennial powerhouse University of Connecticut in the tournament final, avenging two earlier season losses to the Lady Huskies in the process.

The rest is history, from there the Rutgers women went on to the round of 64, the NCAA tournament and proceeded to win their next five games beating three teams ranked in the top 10 of the country including top ranked Duke University in the sweet 16. They were on the brink of becoming national champions, all they needed to do was run 40 more minutes against another perennial powerhouse, the University of Tennessee, and their all world star Candace Parker. But Tennessee was just a little better than Rutgers that night as the Lady Vols won going away by the score of 59-46. So close, no title, but one hell of a season. The story of what happened days afterwards became national news. Instead of being glorified in their hometown area for such a great achievement they were used as a punch line for a ridiculous joke. But, by the time the whole controversy was over they had made a lot of people proud, inspired both male and female alike, and they shinned bright in front of the nation.

The best part about entering this season for the Lady Scarlet Knights is they brought back virtually their entire roster from last season. Usually a team that reaches the heights that Rutgers did last season losses a part of its core. It's common that a national championship game participant has at least a couple of seniors on its roster if not more.  This Rutgers squad did what they did last season with a group of juniors, sophomores, and freshman. Certainly, when you get to where this team did in 2007 there will be no satisfaction unless they make it back this season and bring home the championship. Or maybe there will be satisfaction regardless, the road to the national championship game is an extremely challenging one and the probability of any team making it back is small.

However, Rutgers has begun this 2007-2008 season with a record of 16-3. Add on the fact they began the season playing six of their first nine games against teams ranked in the top 15 of the country. So often we see highly ranked college sports teams dodge the toughest competition and fill their season schedules with cup-cake teams from obscure conferences so they can compile wins. The woman of Rutgers took on a hard schedule and are still compiling wins. The team entered the week ranked 4th in the nation and had a 12 game winning streak until it was snapped on Tuesday evening down in Morgantown, West Virginia to the 12th ranked West Virginia Mountaineers. That was the first game of a stretch in which Rutgers plays five teams ranked in the top 20 of the country, two of which are against Connecticut and Tennessee the number 1 and number two ranked teams in the country.

Last weekend Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer indicated that she was looking forward to the upcoming challenge “Believe it or not I do like that, I liked it earlier when we were playing those tough games, I was just very tired because you try to mix that with recruiting and coaching and all that.” Stringer went on to compare this upcoming stretch with the games the team has played over the last month and a half which was preceded by that initial early season schedule “to be honest these games are much more challenging, I get excited when I sit down and look at a tape like that, it doesn’t matter if it takes me five or six hours to watch that one tape, everyone likes exciting things.” She said. But before the team’s loss to West Virginia Stringer had the pulse of her team as she sensed a bit of false security and maybe a lack of focus from her ladies “The point that I hope we arrive at is that we are not straining to save that which we don’t own. We are trying to save it and we don’t own it. The minute this season started everything is up for grabs again, so somehow between now and big east and NCAA tournament time I have to help us to be proud of what we’ve done but we don’t own that, no one is holding a spot for us at the final four.” Despite the 16-3 record, like most coaches she still sees work that needs to be done “It’s not so much that we’re winning games because if it were just about winning games I would be smiling all the time. I just need to see the game played a certain way, I’m uncomfortable because I don’t like the way I’m seeing the game played, I am upset about that.” Motivational tools are often used by coaches in sports. Surely coach stringer knows her ladies are a special group of student athletes and can take the challenge.

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