C. Vivian Stringer fought back tears as her Rutgers women's basketball players celebrated their coach's entrance to the exclusive 900 win club, then let out a sigh of relief.
As it turned out, the fifth time was the charm for Stringer, who became the fourth women's college basketball coach to reach 900 wins as Rutgers cruised past South Florida 68-56 on Tuesday night.
Stringer, a Hall of Famer in her 42nd season as head coach, reached the milestone thanks to Erica Wheeler, who scored 24 points to help the Scarlet Knights (15-12, 6-8 Big East) snap a four-game losing streak.
"I think it's beyond words," said Stringer, whose record stands at 900-330. "I'm happy that it's over. I can hardly breathe. It's over and now I can just coach and smile, and get back to what I love to do because it's never been about numbers.
"If it's something special for all the generations of players and coaches that I've been a part of, then, yeah, I'm happy. But I'm looking forward to more."
Stringer joined Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt and Sylvia Hatchell, who reached the mark on Feb. 7. Only three Division I men's coaches have reached 900 victories -- Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Jim Boeheim.
"I am fortunate to call Vivian my friend and could not be happier that she has reached the 900-win milestone in her career. I have great respect and admiration for Vivian and consider her one of the great pioneers of our game," Summitt said in a statement. "She has had an incredible journey, and I hope she adds many more to her 'W' column!"
As the game ended, a crowd of 1,304 at the Rutgers Athletic Center saluted Stringer with chants of "900" and "C.V.S." and Scarlet Knights Athletics Director Tim Pernetti was among the first to greet her with a framed No. 900 jersey. Rutgers' cheerleaders unfurled a banner that read "Congratulations Coach Stringer - 900 wins," and her players took turns hugging their emotional coach at midcourt.
"When I look back on my life, this team, probably this year, best reflects what 900 has been," said Stringer, the first coach in men's or women's basketball to take three different schools to the Final Four, including Rutgers in 2000 and '07. "It helped me to remember that it was never easy. But unless you really have a passion, unless you really know how fortunate you are not to have had a lot of major injuries to a lot of players, which is what happened to this team, and unless you remember how fortunate you are to be able to get to those special places."
Rutgers had lost four straight games since beating Cincinnati for Stringer's 899th career victory.
"It's more than a game, it's about a preparation for life," said Stringer, who is in her 18th season at Rutgers. "It's about understanding that when things are rough you may get knocked down and there may be doubters but you'll still rise."
Betnijah Laney added 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists for the Scarlet Knights, who secured a much-needed win to enhance their NCAA tournament resume. Rutgers, which entered the game 10th in the Big East standings, is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after 10 straight appearances.
"Everything will take care of itself," Stringer said, dismissing a question related to her postseason fate. "This was a major win, and it's important to win down the (stretch) as it is right now."
Laney and Wheeler had six points apiece and Syessence Davis made a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer as the Scarlet Knights used a 17-6 closing run to go into intermission with a 35-24 advantage.
Rachel Hollivay scored six of her eight points after the break for Rutgers, which didn't allow South Florida (19-8, 8-6) within eight points in the second half.
"It's almost a little heartbreaking because she gives her heart out when she coaches," Wheeler said. "So to not get her that 900th win as soon as we needed to, I cried a couple times at night. It was important tonight to definitely get her that win."
The Bulls, who saw their three-game winning streak snapped, were led by Courtney Williams' 15 points.