Since Rutgers and UConn began playing on Jan. 24, 1996 no bigger circle was painted around a date on the Big East schedule until Notre Dame rolled in.
Their 35 meetings have had it all. The Scarlet Knights have tried to use the rivalry to shine the “Jewel of the East” brighter. But Rutgers has won only six times, although some were big:
· The night the Scarlet Knights beat UConn for the first time, 74-70, in Piscataway on Feb. 10, 1998, after which Stringer was carried off the court.
· The night, during a snow and ice storm in Hartford, when Rutgers beat UConn, 55-47, in the semifinals of the Big East tournament.
· The night Rutgers handed Maya Moore the only conference loss of her career, 73-71, on Feb. 5, 2008 in Piscataway.
The rivalry may end Saturday when the two play at Rutgers Athletic Center. If they don’t meet in the Big East tournament, or down the line in the NCAAs, this could be it. Rutgers is scheduled to join the Big Ten after the 2013-14 season. But who knows these days what could happen?
“I haven’t given it [the end of the rivalry] any thought,” Geno Auriemma said. “But I think one thing Rutgers has discovered, as time has gone by, is that it’s one thing to say what you are going to be, what you are going to do.
“It’s another thing to sustain it over a long period of time.”
UConn (23-1) is ranked No. 3, on an 11-game winning streak and is preparing to play No. 1 Baylor Monday in Hartford. Rutgers may not make the NCAAs for the first time in 10 seasons.
“We just need to make sure that the younger guys don’t mentally skip ahead to the Baylor game,” UConn junior Stefanie Dolson said. “They need to focus on only this game.”
Things are not going well for Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer who Saturday tries again for her career 900th win in her 42nd season as a college coach.
On Jan. 27, Rutgers (14-9, 5-5) lost to Seton Hall for the first time since 2002. The Lady Pirates had won only two conference games in coach Anne Donovan’s first two seasons and haven’t had a winning season in the Big East since 2000-01.
Stringer is now under fire from critics for its performance over the last three years (61-38, 30-19 Big East). She lashed out in a Feb. 9 article in the Newark Star-Ledger.
“I could (not) care less about any of those people,” Stringer said. “The only thing that matters to me is Tim Pernetti [the Rutgers athletic director]. He needs to be who he is supposed to be and step up and declare who you are, and that’s it. I don’t care about anybody else.
“It’s truly amazing to me. I shouldn’t be upset. But that’s how people are. What have you done for me lately? ‘Well, you didn’t go to the Final Four.’ Really? Well, what else is new?”
“How many (Final Fours) did you go to before? [Stringer has taken Rutgers twice]. How many NCAAs did you go to before? [Stringer has 14 trips]. How many [men’s] basketball championships have we won? How many football championships have we won?
“Just back it off. Just back the crap off. I’m not dealing with that. I know what I’ve done. You know and I know that this program has been the star of this university in athletics for the past 15 years. So you really think I want to hear about the last three years?”
Auriemma has watched contending programs come and go during his 28 seasons at UConn. He counts Rutgers as one of the many who have tried, and failed, to do what Notre Dame finally has succeeded at.
“Louisville tried, so has Notre Dame [which has defeated UConn in five or their last six meetings],” Auriemma said. “I would think there’s a reason why our conference eventually went from two teams in the Big East to nine teams in the tournament.
“It’s because programs had designs of being like Connecticut. They wanted to play at our level. If Connecticut was going to be in their league, they wanted to beat us. The reason the conference became one of the best conferences in the nation is because teams came into it thinking like that.”
The greater sign that Rutgers and UConn have gone in different directions is that the Scarlet Knights have lost 28 of its last 29 games against Top 10 teams.
Stringer, 64, is New Jersey’s highest-paid state employee ($1.035 million this season before bonuses) and is under contract through next season 2014. She told the Star-Ledger that she has no plans to retire.
“Everybody just relax for a minute and realize we have nine freshmen and sophomores out there,” she said. “They also [need to] realize that you got a kid [Monique Oliver] who is a double-double that hasn’t played half the doggone year.
“So if I fall to these crazies – and that’s what I say they are – then I’m losing my mind.”