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PISCATAWAY, NJ—It’s been 10 years since the Rutgers women’s basketball team played in the NCAA national championship game, but Matee Ajavon remembers it well.
“That’s probably one of the highlights of all of the years that I’ve been playing basketball,” said Ajavon, the starting point guard that season, in a recent telephone interview.
“I think about that game all the time—and of course, what could have been,” she told New Brunswick Today.
That game did not end the way that Rutgers wanted it to, as the Scarlet Knights fell 59-46 to Tennessee.
But the fact that Rutgers even made it to that point—the only NCAA national championship game appearance in team history—was an enormous accomplishment in a season filled with adversity.
“I think if you asked any of us in the beginning, no one would have said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to be playing in the national championship game,’” said Heather Zurich, a starting forward that year.
“But as the season rolled along and we started to gel a little bit, I think the thought definitely came to our minds a little bit later on.”
Rutgers entered the 2006-07 season having graduated Cappie Pondexter, an Associated Press First Team All-American. Ajavon missed the first four games due to injury.
In addition to Ajavon, a junior, and Zurich, a sophomore, Rutgers started junior forward Essence Carson, freshman guard Epiphanny Prince, and sophomore center Kia Vaughn. There were no seniors and five freshmen on the roster.
Rutgers couldn’t afford to think about the national championship game early in the year. After a 2-4 start, the Scarlet Knights had more immediate concerns.
“We were just worried about one game at a time,” Zurich said.
Rutgers also had to contend with head coach C. Vivian Stringer’s response to the poor start.
Stringer revoked the team’s locker room access and barred the players from wearing Rutgers practice gear for about a month.
“It was devastating,” Ajavon said with a laugh. “We fought hard to get those things back.”
Rutgers regrouped and won 17 of their last 21 regular season games.
The Scarlet Knights went 12-4 in Big East play, earning the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and winning its only Big East championship in program history by upsetting Connecticut 55-47.
The Scarlet Knights held the Huskies, which had gone undefeated in Big East play in the regular season, to their lowest scoring output of the year.
That victory over Connecticut has added significance now that the Huskies have been dominating women’s college basketball.
Connecticut won the last four NCAA championships and had won 111 straight games before falling to Mississippi State in the 2017 Final Four.
“That’s one thing that I can say, ‘Back in my day, we did beat UConn,’” Ajavon said. “It’s just one of those bragging rights type of things.”
The Scarlet Knights earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
They easily won their first-round game against East Carolina, 77-34. Then Rutgers defeated Michigan State, a No. 5 seed, 70-57 on the Spartans’ home court in the second round.
Rutgers’ most memorable and least likely NCAA tournament win was its 53-52 victory over Duke, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, in the Sweet 16.
The worst of Rutgers’ losses that year had been an 85-45 thrashing by Duke in the Scarlet Knights’ home opener. In the rematch, Rutgers handed Duke its only loss of the season.
“We played our hearts out that game,” Vaughn said in a recent email. “We had something to prove to ourselves and the basketball world.”
Rutgers needed a bit of luck to upset Duke. The Blue Devils’ Lindsey Harding could have tied or won the game at the foul line with a tenth of a second remaining.
“When she missed both free throws, I nearly passed out from yelling and being so excited,” Vaughn said.
Then came a 64-45 win over Arizona State in the Elite Eight and a 59-35 victory over LSU in the Final Four.
Rutgers played outstanding defense throughout the NCAA tournament, holding East Carolina, Duke, Arizona State, and LSU to their lowest point totals of the year. With the national semifinal win, Rutgers reached the final game of the women’s college basketball season.
“Everyone really understood their role,” Zurich said. “We had each other’s back, we worked hard, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get there, but I think we just all really believed in each other. And that’s obviously really important in getting to the championship game.”
Rutgers’ starters that year have built successful careers in basketball. Ajavon plays for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, Carson for the Los Angeles Sparks, and Prince and Vaughn for the New York Liberty. Zurich is an assistant coach for Division I LIU Brooklyn’s women’s basketball team.
Ten years later, the memories of the 2006-07 season remain fresh, Zurich said.
“I’ll never forget that 40-point loss to Duke. Just being on the court, watching people walk out of the RAC, you don’t really forget that feeling. You don’t forget any of the games in March. You don’t forget the struggle in the beginning of the season.
“I think that season definitely sticks out probably very vividly in all of our minds as something that’s really hard to forget.”
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.