Rutgers knocks off No. 2 seed Auburn 80-52

Published 9:20 pm Monday, March 23, 2009

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers used its home-court advantage to run second-seeded Auburn right out of the NCAA tournament.

Epiphanny Prince scored 27 points and the seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights beat the Tigers 80-52 on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“There’s something electric about the RAC,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. “When the fans get there it can be pretty intimidating. Auburn was placed in a difficult position when we were hitting shots.”

The Scarlet Knights (21-12) jumped all over Auburn, scoring the first nine points of the game. Inside and out the Tigers couldn’t stop the Scarlet Knights. By the time the game reached the first media timeout, Rutgers led 13-2.

“They came out at us very hard and it got us back on our heels,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “Messed with our confidence a little bit.”

Two minutes later the Scarlet Knights extended the advantage to 22-4 as Heather Zurich completed a four-point play and Brittany Ray capped the long run with a 3-pointer to the delight of the home crowd.

“I’m happy to leave the RAC this way,” Zurich said. “It’s our last game here playing together.”

Rutgers advanced to Oklahoma City to play Purdue in the regional semifinals Sunday. The Scarlet Knights have made it out of the second round five straight years.

“I’m proud of this team,” Stringer said. “Our two seniors who haven’t known anything than a Sweet 16. For them to go out with anything less than that would have been a big disservice.”

Zurich and Kia Vaughn wouldn’t let their final home game end in defeat. Vaughn had 15 points and 11 rebounds. Zurich added 12 to help pace a balanced offense that had four players in double figures. She left with two minutes left to a warm hug from Stringer.

“I felt Heather was the X-factor today,” Stringer said. “She was smooth, came out and didn’t hesitate. She and Kia made up their minds they were going to go out winners.”

Khadijah Rushdan added nine points, 10 rebounds, and six assists for the Scarlet Knights.

“We can’t go further if everyone isn’t involved,” Prince said. “Today everyone came out and knew their role and took the opening shots they were given and hitting them and it was great.”

DeWanna Bonner scored 17 to lead Auburn (30-4), which shot a season-worst 28 percent from the field.

“When you’re missing shots and they were making shots it kills your confidence,” Bonner said. “We had a great season and they just played good basketball tonight.”

The Tigers missed 10 of their first 12 shots and Bonner, who was the SEC player of the year averaging 21.2 points, didn’t score her first basket until hitting a 3-pointer that made it 29-13. She did her best to try and keep Auburn in the game scoring eight straight points, but a balanced Rutgers offense kept pouring it on.

The Scarlet Knights led 43-23 on backup center Rashidat Junaid’s free throw with 2 minutes left — the largest deficit Auburn’s had all season — before the Tigers closed the half scoring the last five points to trail by 15 at the break.

Rutgers had been in this position before with a big halftime lead against an SEC school. The Scarlet Knights led Tennessee 33-13 at the half in early January before losing 55-51.

On Monday night, the Scarlet Knights wouldn’t let this game slip away. Auburn closed to 49-38 early in the second half, but then Prince took over.

After Vaughn’s layup started the spurt, Prince scored 11 straight points on three nifty layups, the last of which came on a dazzling 1-on-1 move against the 6-foot-4 Bonner that made the score 62-40 with just under 8 minutes left.

That run sealed Auburn’s fate and sent the Tigers to their worst NCAA tournament loss ever.

It was another disappointing end for the Tigers, who were trying to get to the regional semifinals for the first time since 1995. The No. 2 seed was Auburn’s best since 1990. The Tigers were rewarded with a trip to Piscataway to meet the seventh-seeded Scarlet Knights in the second round.

Rutgers could empathize with Auburn’s plight having to play Rutgers on its home court. In five of its six previous NCAA tournament appearances, Rutgers has played a second-round game either at the home court of a lower-seeded team or in that team’s home state.

Finally with a chance to play at home in the NCAAs for the first time since 2001, Rutgers didn’t disappoint the spirited crowd, which might have been a little confused with the Scarlet Knights wearing road red. Even the cheerleaders were in their road uniforms.

The public address announcer informed the fans before the game that Rutgers would be listed under the visiting team on the scoreboard and Auburn as the home team. It might be the only time at the RAC that the fans cheered every time points went on the scoreboard for the visitors.

Auburn had little trouble in the first round Saturday, routing 15th seeded Lehigh 85-49 in its largest NCAA tournament win in school history. Rutgers held off 10th-seeded VCU 57-51 nearly blowing an 18-point lead in the final 6 minutes.