PISCATAWAY, N.J. - In the unlikely event the Rutgers women's basketball team loses its focus at the Final Four, it probably won't be due to outside distractions.
Coach C. Vivian Stringer has ensured that by maintaining her no-cell phone policy for the trip to Cleveland. Her players will gladly suffer the inconvenience as they prepare to play LSU in the school's first Final Four appearance since 2000.
"The taking away of the phones is definitely something she enjoys," guard Essence Carson said with a laugh Thursday as the team boarded a bus for Newark Liberty International Airport, serenaded by the school's pep band and about 200 fans.
"She's done it every year I've been here, especially for the Big East tournament and the NCAA tournament," Carson said. "It's definitely been working. We're keeping our ears shut and just looking straight ahead."
Carson, a junior, is the elder stateswoman on a senior-less team that relies on a freshman class led by guard Epiphanny Prince, one of four starters who average between 11.4 and 12.9 points per game.
The Scarlet Knights (26-8) are considered the outsider in a Final Four that also includes powerhouses Tennessee and North Carolina, but that is largely because of their slow start to the season in November and December, when they lost four of their first six games.
Rutgers has gone 24-4 since then, defeating top-seeded Connecticut to win the Big East tournament before advancing out of the Greensboro Regional with a shock upset of No. 1 Duke followed by a 64-45 win over Arizona State.
In some ways, this was the season that was expected of last year's team, which featured three-fifths of this year's starting lineup in addition to player of the candidate Cappie Pondexter, now with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.
The 2005-2006 team lost in the regional semifinals to Tennessee. That this year's team has advanced further than last year's has been a surprise, but not to everyone.
"I guess it's kind of weird, but at the same time I knew our incoming freshmen were really good," Carson said.
"They learned very quickly, and they've taken all that knowledge and they're applying it to every game."
Against LSU (30-7), they'll face a daunting inside-outside challenge from 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles (17 points, 12.7 rebounds per game) and guard Quianna Chaney (12 points per game).
The last time the teams met, Rutgers upset the then-No. 1 ranked Tigers 51-49 in overtime in January 2005 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"We just have to follow the game plan," center Kia Vaughn said. "They're a great team, a powerhouse. Basically we just have to play defense, go out there and perform."
Since losing to Connecticut 70-44 in the final game of the regular season, Rutgers has allowed an average of 49 points in its past seven games.
In a disappointing year for area college basketball teams, the Scarlet Knights also hold the distinction of being the only men's or women's team from the New York metropolitan area and New Jersey to reach the NCAA tournament.
"This is the most unlikely team, but they made believers of me and my coaching staff and, most importantly, made believers of themselves," Stringer said Thursday.
"They did things that they didn't think they could do. And we stand here today representing Rutgers University and the state of New Jersey."