CLEVELAND, Ohio – All-America forward Candace Parker scored 17 points and guard Shannon Bobbitt added 13 as Tennessee dashed Rutgers' national title hopes with a 59-46 win over the Scarlet Knights in the NCAA Women's Basketball championship game at the Quicken Loans Arena.
The Empire State Building in New York City has bestowed its highest honor - the lighting of its tower lights in red - in support of the Rutgers women’s basketball team Tuesday night.
"What can I say? Tennessee played great. I think we played hard, we tried to play hard a little bit too late," said Rutgers head coach C. Vivian Stringer.
While Rutgers was able to hold the Lady Vols' to 15 points below their season average, Tennessee had a decided rebounding average, 42-34, including 24 offensive boards. The Lady Vols scored 22 second chance points.
"Tennessee was big and all those other things, but they killed us on the boards, and it was a matter of (us)blocking out. We have played against other big people, and blocking out is an effort thing that anybody and everybody can do," Stringer added. "When you look at a team as big as them, then you have to do it, and we just didn't."
Sophomore center Kia Vaughn led Rutgers with 20 points, but was the only Scarlet Knight to score in double figures. Juniors Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon, who sparked the Scarlet Knights' NCAA semifinal win over LSU by combining for 31 points, each scored eight points.
"We just didn't rebound well, and they beat us to every loose ball," said sophomore forward Heather Zurich. "We didn't hit good shots. You know, the shots aren't always going to fall, but we could have done more. We could have done more on the defensive side of it. We just didn't play with the heart today that we had all season."
The Lady Vols outscored the Scarlet Knights 17-6 in the final 9:26 of the first half, snapping a 12-12 tie and taking a 29-18 lead at halftime. Alberta Auguste came off the bench to spark Tennessee in the first half, scoring eight of her 10 points in the initial stanza.
Rutgers was able to climb back to within seven points in the second half when Vaughn hit a short jumper to cut the Lady Vols' lead to 35-28 with 13:34 remaining, but Tennessee outscored the Scarlet Knights 11-3 over the next 4:40 to extend its lead to 46-30.
Rutgers once again trimmed the lead to single digits when it pulled to within 50-42 with 2:35 left, but Tennessee hit 9-of-10 free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
"Losing is very hard for us," said freshman guard Ephiphanny Prince. "We just wanted to come out and play hard, but they played harder than us."
Parker was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four, and was joined on the All-Tournament team by Vaughn and Ajavon. Parker's teammates Bobbitt, and Nicky Anosike, were also named to the All-Tournament team. Bobbitt hit 4-of-8 from three-point range, while Anosike helped the Lady Vols control the glass with 16 rebounds.
Despite the loss, Scarlet Knights still enjoyed one of their top seasons in history. The Scarlet Knights rebounded from a 2-4 start to win 25 of their last 30 games, including the BIG EAST tourney title and the NCAA Greensboro Region championship.
"I think that just so much credit has to be given to these young ladies, who came from nothing to do so much, and basically stun everybody," Stringer added. "I think they did a wonderful job and I'm really proud because they gave me a lot of confidence … this was no doubt the most rewarding year that I have had."
THE MODERATOR: We'll start with an opening statement from Coach Stringer and then go to questions for the student‑athletes.
COACH STRINGER: What can I say? Tennessee played great. I think that we played hard. Tried to play hard a little bit too late. We needed to come out maybe a little more aggressive and it might have made a difference. But just it's all credit to Tennessee. They have a great team. If you want to ask me how do I feel if we had to lose, something to someone, you know, would it be Tennessee, um, I think most of you know that she and I are personal friends so I have respect for her as a professional and certainly as a coach.
Would we have liked to have won? Yeah. Yeah. I've been coaching a long time and she's won about eight or nine of them so we would really like to have one. So it hurts a lot. Because as I said, I was saying to the team, you get to that point ‑‑ you don't get to that point often in life, and I'm a living testimony. And wish that we had maybe seized the moment right from the tap, you know, and played it the way that we had from the beginning of the year. That's what defined us. For some reason, I don't know that we believed that. Now, notwithstanding Tennessee was big and all those other things, but they killed us on the boards. And it was a matter of blocking out. We have played against other big people, blocking out is an effort thing that anybody and everybody can do.
When you look at a team as big as that, you have to do it. And we just didn't. We tried to jump with them. And we just didn't. And I'm sorry for the young ladies because it would have been something that ‑‑ I know that this whole experience is something that they will never forget. But I'll always know that we are just that close. And I'm sorry for the great coaches who worked extremely hard and did a great job. But I don't want to put such a damper on it that it defines us and we're nothing.
I think that just so much credit has to be given to the young ladies who came from nothing to do so much, and basically stun everybody and everybody in the world, to the point where people could actually believe that we might be able to do some things. And I think that probably for the most part when we saw the light at the end of the tunnel that we actually believed that too.
But for some reason, maybe we read the headlines, maybe we realized that it was a national championship game. We looked like we were a deer stuck in the headlights. Simple as that. And by the time we rocked from that, just decided to settle down, it was a bit much. And that's ‑‑ I'm sorry about that for the players. And for us and so many other people. That they would have liked to have shared that.
But I still love my team and I think they did a wonderful job and I'm really proud because they gave me a lot of confidence and young people who struggle, I think that as a coach what you want to see is you want to see the opportunity to mold young people's minds and the character and all those other things. And this was no doubt the most rewarding year that I have had. So I guess I'm good for awhile. I feel good about that.
THE MODERATOR: Questions for the student‑athletes first.
Q. E, did you feel that way? Did you feel like y'all kind of weren't fighting from the start, that you were unsettled at the beginning?
ESSENCE CARSON: I just believe that we did a horrible job on the boards and from the beginning. And that's pretty much what she said. By the time we thought about rebounding it was all over. It was too late. It was the rebounding that really did us in.
Q. Can you say what prompted that? Were y'all out of sorts? Do you think that you finally realized, hey, we're on a big stage?
ESSENCE CARSON: I looked at it as another game. I know that I tried to put as much as I could into the team. I know Coach did. But I don't know. At this point and with that kind of question I can only speak for myself.
Q. For any of the players, I know it's tough to think about next year, but you guys could be a pretty good team next year. Do you feel that this is something that you can build on for next season?
ESSENCE CARSON: Wow, once one season is over and another season begins it starts all over. You can bring ‑‑ you can have the same team and not get anything done. You can fall out and in the second round of the NCAA tournament or you can try to repeat what you did the previous season. Like Florida.
I mean, but this is the hardest stage to come back to for any team. Just because of different competitors each and every season. Teams, just as much as we grow, other teams that we go against grow. So it's definitely hard to tell but I really do hope that we can build on this.
Q. They seem to have two players attacking the ball every time you came across mid‑court. I guess do you think they were just trying to deny the 3‑pointer as much when they saw what happened with LSU?
ESSENCE CARSON: Wow, I don't know. They have always done that. Just watching games. It was our job to handle the pressure. And we definitely didn't do a good job of that tonight. Usually throughout the second half of the season we did a great job with handling any type of pressure no matter what team that we came up against. But tonight that definitely didn't happen. So it was a great game plan from Coach Summitt and unfortunately it didn't work in our favor.
THE MODERATOR: Great. Thank you for joining us. Take questions for Coach.
Q. Can you just talk about what was behind the decision to go to the zone in the first half and to stick with it through the end of the game. What was behind that?
COACH STRINGER: No one was going to handle Candace Parker. So the only thing we were trying to do was initially ‑‑ I won't second‑guess myself on that. Trust me when I tell you that. Because we already played Candace, the best thing we could do was ‑‑ we really were playing her man as she was in the perimeter position. The only person that could play her with that size and challenge her shots was Essence Carson.
But what was happening is once she came into the key area we did pick it up and went to the zone. Now, maybe y'all didn't recognize what was happening. But what we were trying to do really is to ‑‑ if you notice the first time she went through the lane, you saw her not get to the box where she would have liked to have been, that was because she was being switched off by Kia Vaughn.
She's a great player. Personally, our team does not play zones very well. If they did, I would be the happiest person in the world. We just don't seem to have the mindset for that. But the time comes when you do need to be able to play a zone. So the best thing we could do is in a short period of time is to manufacture something that could be simple enough to ‑‑ it's a drill that we do every day, so box and one. So we practice just because it's not a zone. But what we were trying to do is basically pick up Parker. And if we hadn't she would have eaten us up. Trust me when I tell you tell you that.
At that, when she caught the ball she always looks to weak side blocks, the reason why I was upset is I guess maybe six out of the first ten points was that exact same thing. She caught the ball on the left block, she reversed pivot and looked to hit that. We for some reason we were a step slow. I don't know whether we were tired, excited about the game, we knew that hit. That's what was so frustrating. We knew the hit that she had to take. And we did. We in other instances, although obviously Tennessee's the biggest team, everybody else knows that too. But unfortunately for us we did not put a serious body on any of those players and really box them out hard. We did not do that.
Q. How did you address the team after the game? What did you say to them in the locker room?
COACH STRINGER: I really don't know what I'm thinking right now. As I was sharing with them, I appreciate as I do them, we went some places that nobody thought we could go. I'm not in position because, quite frankly, I didn't expect to lose the game. I really didn't. I was very calm. But what surprised me is I just thought we were very quiet and that scared me a little bit. We just seemed to be quiet. And I was thinking would somebody tell us that we were playing a national championship game because as long as we have been playing we haven't really focused on that. It's just like let's just go ahead and do what we need to do.
So I don't know what it was. We just seemed to be a step slow and very anxious to get started. And maybe it was because we anticipated the size of Nicky Anosike and Parker and the rest of these guys, we're five‑nine and they're six‑three. Maybe that's what it is.
But as Essence said, we still could have done a much better job in my mind. So I'll talk to them more. I'm kind of numb as I have been really through this whole thing. I don't know what I think right now.
Q. Could you comment on how Candace played and were you satisfied with the job you did? I mean, she ‑‑ I think she had 17 but didn't shoot great, 5 for 15, something like that.
COACH STRINGER: Yeah, yeah. Think about that. Candace is capable of a 50‑point performance. You are a witnessing the best player in the world. There's nobody that comes close to her. Think about what we're trying to do. We're trying to play a quick, a good quick player in the perimeter, but when she goes back down, Essence is not strong enough to handle her in the post position. So that's when Kia plays her. If we had taken her out, Kia wouldn't have been quick enough to play her outside. So we took a half of this and a half of that. So it's almost like ‑‑ but I tell you what broke our backs, it wasn't Candace Parker, I think we could have withstood that. The person that broke our back was Bobbitt. I was upset because Epiphanny came out and we told her that the girl has four‑point range. What else do we need to say? She's standing at three‑point range and now you let people who are streak shooters more get happy and be convinced that that's what they can do, that' what happens. She came down with her hands down.
Epiphanny has been suffering a cold. I had to talk to her. She's ‑‑ that's not the reason. She seemed to be very sluggish today right from the beginning, so I was very upset and she said, dang, I didn't know she did that, she knew that. But she wasn't registering. And I think that's all part of the atmosphere and everybody else was delayed in their reaction.
Q. You kind of just touched on it the threes. How much did that kind of break your back, those three threes in a row right there when you got it back to I think like six points or something? She hit three threes in like a matter of a minute and a half?
COACH STRINGER: Yeah. You know what? Here is what's incredible about it. First of all, she's a midget on the floor. So all you had to do was be relatively close. So that's disturbing. But it might speak to the respect that she commands also because she is so little and then so quick with the ball. So we stayed off way too far. And in retrospect maybe I should have played Essence on her. But no one would have thought that she was going to drop threes like that. She is one of their better 3‑point shooters, shooting players, but that very clearly broke our back.
But when I get visions of this game, I see Shannon Bobbitt knocking those threes down and us really not coming out and playing her. Which is unusual when you are playing for a national championship you play anything and everything. If you see a gnat moving on the floor you try to stomp it out. You don't second‑guess, you react. This was kind of strange.
But also the second opportunities there were a number of times that they get three and four opportunities at the boards. You cannot win with that kind of relentless, pursuit. And that's what they did. Now, for a smaller team, then with the smaller teams, what they have to do is instead of trying to jump with them you're not going to jump with them and we will never jump with them. They're too big but what we should have done is stepped in and blocked out.
That's about a will and a focus and at one time I was saying to the team and at the time‑out, if I told you how to win a national championship would you be interested in listening? And can we all get on the same page? This is how we must do this. And one of the things that we spoke to was just getting in body contact. Strong physical contact to back them up. It was clear that the officials weren't going to call anything and that's good, that's fine. I don't have any complaints about what the officials were doing. But we needed to go ahead and be physical and we weren't.
And Pat did a great job. They played well. As Candace said, it was nice for them to return. And I'll never know why. We just seemed to be a little just a little off. And yes, we would like to come back next year, but it's not that simple. So we know what it took to get here this time and I appreciate the team and the support that we have gotten and if we end up here, that's good. If we don't, wow, I won't be 25 more years, I'm going to tell you that, doing it.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you very much.
COACH STRINGER: Thank you.