A comeback by Tennessee (22-1) in the final 90 seconds culminated with two offensive rebounds off a missed jumper by Shannon Bobbitt and a foul by Kia Vaughn, who pulled Nicky Anosike to the floor, with two-tenths of a second left on the clock.
Anosike, who was 0-7 at that point from the field, calmly hit both shots for the final margin and the win.
When asked what she was thinking as she stepped to the line, Anosike said, "Basically just that I didn't do anything to help this team out, I didn't do anything to help win, and when I was presented with an opportunity to do something I knew I had to step up."
Anosike swished them both – Tennessee had missed seven freebies in the second half after going a perfect 12-12 from the line in the first half – and the game ended after a Rutgers in-bounds pass was tipped, as the rule book decrees.
"She had ice in her veins," said Candace Parker, who was 11-13 from the line. "I've seen Nicky stay after practice and work on free throws day after day. We needed her to do it, and she stepped up huge for us. I was really happy."
Anosike was rather nonplussed by the frantic seconds leading up to her chance to secure the game.
"Honestly, I just saw Candace miss, and I got the ball and threw it up," Anosike said.
"Thank you Nick," Parker said with a shake of her head.
Parker got the long offensive rebound off the Bobbitt miss, but the ball rolled off the cylinder. Anosike grabbed the ball and was pulled to the ground by Vaughn as she tried to hoist a shot.
The clock stopped at .2 seconds and then ran out and Rutgers thought the game was over. But the officials conferred at the scorer's table, watched the replay frame by frame and ruled there was a foul with time remaining.
The controversy worsened post-game, because both coaches were told by the media that the clock "froze," thus seemingly allowing Tennessee more time for the final foul to occur.
"It looked like the clock froze?" Stringer said incredulously. "That's really interesting here at Tennessee, isn't it? Wow. It looked like the clock froze. I'm going to remember that one.
"It was a great game with two great teams in a great atmosphere, great cause for all the right reasons. That's just unfortunate that those kinds of things happen. I could probably write a book on all that. I'm really used to it by now, but we'll learn from that. It doesn't take away from the great Tennessee team and the great coach and the great everything. I'll just remember at the end of it with the exclamation: Clock froze."
Except that wasn't what happened. Tennessee uses a system known as "Precision Time," which is in use by major conferences across the country. The SEC has used it for the last four-plus years, according to Tim Reese, the manager of Thompson-Boling Arena.
"The precision time device is tied into the control panel controlling both the game clock and the shot clock because they are in a synchronous mode," Reese said. "The official's whistle has a microphone attached to it and each official carries a belt pack. The whistle stops the clock and the belt pack has a switch, which starts the clock."
The microphone picks up the whistle, and the noise is transmitted to a processor in the pack, which sends a wireless signal to the Precision Time base unit, according to Reese.
The officials can start and stop the clock via the belt packs. There are five belt packs available for each game – two are backups – and each one gets a fresh battery before each game.
What is clear is that one of the officials blew the whistle to stop the clock. From the live view it appeared to be Bonita Spence, the trail official, with Bob Trammell also blowing his whistle under the basket after she did. Spence comes into the view of television after the clock has stopped. It was not known why the clock restarted and ran to zero – thus creating the erroneous "froze" theory – but one of the officials would have had to have tripped the timer on the pack, perhaps inadvertently.
The officials conferred at the scorer's table and made the ruling, which was explained to both coaches.
"They told me that they reviewed it and 0.2 seconds were left when the foul occurred," Stringer said. "I spoke to both officials and it seems like one was telling me about what the other one said. In other words, that's what he said he saw, so what did you see.
"I asked them if I could see and of course that was not allowed here. It's too bad. They said that in that circumstance they could not let me see the clock. I might have been able to help them see something that they needed to see."
A coach helping officials to make or overturn a call by watching the video is not in the rulebook, but the officials did release a statement after the game to explain why the game ended on a tipped ball. According to Rule 4, Section 69, Article 5, if the clock has three-tenths of a second left or less, a player can't gain possession of the ball for a field goal in that short stint. The player can score by tapping the ball in the basket. If the ball is tipped by any player on the floor, the game is over.
On the last play, Tennessee had a foul to give so Pat Summitt called timeout and had her players aggressively go after the in-bounds pass. Had Tennessee fouled, Rutgers would still have had to in-bound the ball again, and would not go to the line. Alexis Hornbuckle tipped the ball as it was fired in the direction of Epiphanny Prince, and it went out of bounds. Tina Napier declared the game over.
The fact that the officials didn't issue an official statement about the foul indicated that was a non-issue to them after viewing the replays. They issued a statement to explain why the tipped ball ended the game.
It was not the controversial ending that anyone wanted in what was otherwise a regular season game with a postseason vibe.
"The two teams are too good for that," Stringer said. "That's not Pat's fault and that's not Tennessee's fault, unfortunately. Probably what I would have to say about that situation is that I just want to be able to coach my team in the next couple days. But it has nothing to do with Tennessee and it has nothing to do with those players and those coaches. Unfortunately, that's a human error. I just happen to be on the end of human error too many times with too many erasers at the end of my name and I'm so sorry, because these young women deserve better."
When Stringer addressed the media, the explanation of the timing system had not been made, and she was basing her remarks on the frozen notion.
But it's doubtful that even an official announcement would have eased her pain. Rutgers (19-4) has been on the end of these calls before – Stanford won with one-tenth of a second remaining on a late foul call this season – and Stringer wants the tide to turn.
"We really thought we had won," Stringer said. "That's an interesting emotion. Being picked up and before you can even come down, you've been tapped, ‘hello.' There's been a cruel joke played out here. That's an amazing thing. You've got to try it sometimes, from extremely high to extremely low. …
"I'm just tired of being the one. I've seen it all. I am so sorry because the game did not deserve this. Tennessee didn't deserve this. Pat didn't deserve this. All those great players did not deserve this and neither did my great team deserve this. It is what it is."
What it was for Tennessee was a dominating performance by Parker, who scored 27 points and had 10 rebounds, five blocks and three assists. The junior forward passed Tanya Haave (1,771 points) and Sheila Frost (1,790) to claim sixth place in career points with 1,795.
"I tried to tell the team, ‘Get the ball inside to Candace,' " Summitt said. "Because she is so more effective consistently when she can get paint points. When the game gets tight like that, and we have to have baskets, then we go to Candace in the paint, not Candace on the perimeter."
Parker was joined in double digits by Angie Bjorklund, who had 13 points, but played only 23 minutes because of foul trouble. Her biggest shot was a three-pointer that followed Bobbitt's three-pointer – her only made shot of the game – that brought Tennessee back from five down to one up, 57-56, with 49 seconds left in the game.
"I was so excited when Shannon knocked down that shot," Parker said. "I think that was great for her confidence, and it gave us a spark going the other way, and then when Angie … when the ball was in the air I just looking and praying, ‘Please go in. Because nothing has fallen for us all night.'
"We looked at the clock, and we were down five, and we went on a 6-0 run and I was really happy for our team because we're capable of doing that."
But Rutgers still had a shot to go ahead. Epiphanny Prince, who scored 21 points, picked up where she left off against UConn and repeatedly drove the lane for buckets. But this time she was met by Parker, who stuffed the shot but went down with the ball. The official ruled she was out of bounds – Parker said she wasn't; Anosike said she was – but a TV replay showed the ball stayed off the end line.
It should have been Tennessee's ball with a one-point lead and 31 seconds left, but Rutgers was awarded possession, and Essence Carson stuck a 19-footer to give the Scarlet Knights a one-point lead, 58-57, with 23 seconds left.
That set up the finish and Anosike's performance at the stripe.
"I'm sure Nicky was not pleased with her offensive game," Summitt said. "That gave her a chance to step in there and make the plays to win the game. She obviously has an incredible competitive spirit about her, and that might have worked against her, but she also had a lot of composure when she went to the line. I was really happy for her."
Summitt was not pleased with Bobbitt, who got a technical foul with 6:37 left in the game for pointing at Matee Ajavon after a foul. Bobbitt had been knocked to the ground throughout the game without foul calls – including twice in a row – and lost her composure at that point.
"I think they know each other, but I was not happy with what Shannon did," Summitt said. "Shannon got a little bit into herself. She needs to stay into our team. You can't have your point guard doing what she did during that stretch."
Bobbitt and Anosike are both from New York and know most of the Rutgers players, who hail from the New York and New Jersey areas.
"They were talking the whole game," Anosike said. "You can try to ignore it all you want, but after awhile it's going to get to you and I think that she was just at her breaking point and she felt like she had to defend herself and say something back. It just happened to be at that point in time.
"Whatever happens happens, but that's my teammate, and I am going to stand behind her."
It was a very physical game with no calls under the basket despite a lot of contact. The officials never really had control of the game – they allowed the teams a timeout that wasn't scheduled by the scorer's table or called by either team; a whistle blew on an shoulder to Parker's chest on a made Rutgers basket but play continued without explanation; and the officials needed to confer to get the possession arrow clarified. Fouls were called against players who didn't make contract – Hornbuckle got her second foul in the first half despite the fact she stood to the side while Parker hit the player and Parker tried, to no avail, to correct the foul call.
"To be honest with you there were times where under the basket you're getting fouled," Parker said. "I felt like sometimes that happens. We're not going to make the best plays all the time, and we're going to turn the ball over and the refs are going to miss calls at time. It's the game of basketball. We won. We came out with a victory. The W was on our side. That's what we're going to take with it."
Tennessee certainly started the game well. The Lady Vols led at halftime, 34-23, and had eight assists on 10 baskets to just one turnover. Parker had 17 points at the break, and Bjorklund had eight, but she was limited to nine minutes of play after picking up two early fouls.
But Tennessee couldn't hit a shot in the second half – the Lady Vols shot 23.5 percent in that half and 29.6 percent for the game – and Rutgers went on a 10-0 run to wipe out the lead.
Bjorklund finally hit a 12-footer at the 13:46 mark to put Tennessee up, 36-33, and the fans, who had diligently stood awaiting the first basket – they sat through two timeouts but got back on their feet when play resumed – roared.
"Coach said we were one for 15 at one point," Parker said. "We kept trying to stay positive and say we were only down by two. We were making stops in the first half. In the second half, we weren't making stops or scoring. I guess that's the difference."
Rutgers is a second-half team and the Scarlet Knights worked the shot clock down to several seconds before driving to the basket. It both slowed the game down and forced Tennessee to work a long time on defense.
"It's very frustrating because you know they're going to dip their heads and they're going to take it at you," Hornbuckle said. "We stressed one-on-one defense but when you have somebody that quick who can pull up or take it all the way it's really hard to guard."
Tennessee also was its own worst enemy, once again, by easing up in terms of energy and effort.
"We came out very lax in the second half," Parker said. "Our fans had to stand seven minutes, probably longer than that."
That reluctance to put together a 40-minute game has hindered Tennessee all season. The Lady Vols paid for it at Stanford, but have managed not to lose since then.
"I'm not sure how we managed to win that game," Summitt said. "I think statistically, what I'm proud of in terms of keeping us in the game, I think midway in the second half we were one for 15 from the floor. You're not going to win a lot games shooting that the ball that way unless you take care of the basketball. Obviously we kept our turnovers down and we got on the boards."
Tennessee had just eight turnovers for the game to 13 for Rutgers. The Lady Vols also prevailed on the boards, 37-32, with 16 offensive rebounds, none more important than the last two by Parker and Anosike. Bobbitt was the second-leading rebounder with six boards.
"I think this game obviously can help us," Summitt said. "We will learn from it. Our basketball team found a way to win, but they were outplayed in the second half."
To repeat as champions Tennessee will have to put together a complete game, as it did last postseason. Therein lies the problem. The Lady Vols waited last season and still won a national title. Summitt keeps telling her players that history want repeat itself – that they can't wait and get away with it again – but her words haven't penetrated yet.
"To be honest we've just got to be a 40-minute team," Hornbuckle said. "I think it's more mental than anything because we came out knowing that they were going to come at us from the get-go. We were fired up in the first half, and I think we kind of got complacent with our lead in the second half."
"Honestly, we do things when he have to and that's wrong, but we waited until last year at the end of the year to play, we waited until we were down five with a minute and a half to hit threes," Parker said. "We do things when we have to."
"We're going to get better," Hornbuckle said.
"Yeah, we're going to play 40 minutes one day," Parker said.
"Make sure you put that," Hornbuckle said.
"One day," Parker said.
"One day soon," Hornbuckle said.
Summitt can only hope that is the case.
"We shouldn't go back to our apartments or our dorm rooms and think that we're the best team in the country," Summitt said. "We've still got a lot of growing to do to be the best team in the country. I don't know who that is, but there's a lot of good ones and Rutgers is definitely one of the best we've played."