‘V’ Is For Vivian: Stringer Takes Rutgers To Women’s Title Game

By John Smallwood
Updated: April 2, 2007

CLEVELAND — A quarter of a century is a long time to wait for a second opportunity, but that’s how long it has taken C. Vivian Stringer to return to the NCAA women’s championship game.

Back in 1982, the NCAA finally had sanctioned women’s basketball as a varsity sport, and Stringer was coaching at Cheyney State in the southwestern suburbs of Philadelphia.

The Wolves missed out on a chance at immortality by losing the title game, 76-62, to Louisiana Tech in Norfolk, Va. Stringer couldn’t have imagined that it would take her 25 years to coach in another national championship game.

She brought the Scarlet Knights to the Final Four in Philadelphia in 2000, but they lost to Tennessee in the semifinals. Stringer also took Iowa to the national semifinals in 1993, and is the only women’s coach in NCAA history to take three schools to the Final Four.

“I think if any person were to think of how long anything could take when you’re trying to excel at this level, I don’t think that we could probably make it,” said Stringer, who advanced to Tuesday’s title game against Tennessee when Rutgers routed Louisiana State, 59-35, Sunday in a national semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena.

“But because each year I really love what I do – coaching – and I look at it in a technical sense of considering where the players are in molding them into the players we want them to be, the years kind of pass.

“I didn’t think about 25 years ago, but I do know my heart was broken.” And now Stringer gets a chance to heal that wound with a team that was one of her most unlikely to reach this point.

With no seniors on the roster and two sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup, this was not regarded as a team capable of taking Stringer to her fourth Final Four.

But after a 2-4 start, these Scarlet Knights (27-8) grew and developed, possibly like no other Stringer team before. Rutgers has played lights out in the NCAA Tournament, especially on defense, as it has won four of its five games by double digits and given up an average of just 44.6 points a game.

“It feels great to have gotten this far,” said junior forward Essence Carson, who combined with fellow junior Matee Ajavon to total 31 points and seven three-pointers. “But when you’re this close, why settle for this?

“We have worked so hard this entire season. We have come from nothing and basically built our foundation from scratch. To give up now would just fall short of what [Stringer’s] really trying to achieve. There’s one more game left.”

In her 35 years coaching, Stringer has won 777 games – third most in Division I women’s basketball history. An NCAA title is all that’s missing. “Yeah, how could I not?” Stringer said of her desire for a national championship. “It’s something that we all pursue.

“I just want to know what it feels like. I’ll always pursue excellence, and excellence is a national championship.” With just under seven minutes left in Sunday’s game, Rutgers freshman Brittany Ray sank the ninth of the Scarlet Knights’ 10 three-pointers to increase the lead to 50-28.

Stringer pumped her fists emphatically. It was not celebrating too early. Rutgers had cut the fight out of LSU long before then. This game was done at halftime, when the Knights led, 37-19.

LSU (30-8), which reached its fourth straight Final Four, continued its string of anemic offense in national semifinals. In those Final Four losses, LSU has put up 50, 57, 45 and now a record-low 35 points.

As a fourth seed, Rutgers matches Western Kentucky (1992) and Louisiana Tech (1994) as the lowest seed to play for a women’s championship. A seed that low has never won an NCAA women’s title, and Rutgers will not be favored Tuesday night against Tennessee.

Still, Stringer believes. “I really have confidence in all of these players,” Stringer said, “and I really don’t know why other than I really believe our steps are ordered.”

“I do believe that this is a team of destiny, and there’s a sense of calm. I have been very, very calm. I feel good about it. I feel good about the coaches that surround me. I feel good about the players that are there.”