Commentary

Vaughn's defense the difference as Rutgers holds off LSU

Updated: November 25, 2007, 8:36 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The old basketball adage claims you can't coach a player to be taller. But Kia Vaughn and Rutgers tweaked the laws of physics by making a tall opponent a small presence for long stretches Sunday.

"We're not going to grow another 2 or 3 inches taller," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said after the game. "We know that, and it is what it is this year."

[+] EnlargeVaughn and Fowles
AP Photo/Rich SchultzLSU just didn't get the ball to Sylvia Fowles enough on Sunday. Most of the credit goes to Rutgers' Kia Vaughn and her relentless defense.

In a game in which neither No. 5 LSU nor No. 7 Rutgers executed its offense with nearly the same efficiency as its defense, the teams combining for 39 turnovers against 35 field goals, Vaughn's defense against LSU All-American Sylvia Fowles stood out as a performance worthy of April's biggest stage. It also enabled the Scarlet Knights to hold on for a 45-43 win that erased some of the sting of a season-opening home loss to Stanford.

In fact, Vaughn's performance was reminiscent of the one she gave against Fowles last April in a national semifinal game in Cleveland that Rutgers won by a far greater margin. Fowles finished with better numbers this time around, totaling 13 points and 12 rebounds, compared to five points and seven boards in the Final Four, but nothing came easily -- not even one of the only open looks she had all game, a breakaway dunk attempt in the second half that she admitted slipped off her fingers before it clattered off the rim.

In her previous two games against Rutgers, Fowles shot just 27 percent from the field. In the other 42 games she played since the beginning of last season, she shot 58 percent.

"Sylvia Fowles is a great post player," Rutgers guard Matee Ajavon said. "She's very aggressive, and she demands the ball. So Kia did a great job of deterring her shots and making her actually work for her shots."

A player can be an offensive hero for succeeding on a relatively small number of plays over the course of the game; it's like gambling on low-price stocks with hopes of one or two bringing home a hefty profit. By contrast, maintaining the focus necessary to shut down a player like Fowles -- six of her points came when Vaughn was on the bench with two fouls in the first half -- is like building retirement savings penny by penny. You better be willing to hang in for the long haul and do a lot of work for a minimal return.

In the 29 minutes that Vaughn and Fowles were on the court together, and discounting offensive rebounds, Fowles never touched the ball more than once on the same possession. Chalk up some of that to LSU's guards either waiting too long before making an entry pass late in the shot clock or moving the ball away too soon after receiving a kick-out from Fowles. But most of the credit goes to Vaughn for never letting up.

"Sylvia is an All-American post player, and, I mean, you couldn't ask for anything else from Sylvia," Rutgers guard Essence Carson said. "So I believe that Kia really focused. … This week in practice, she had a real focus on just doing the little things right during the post position, post defense. And she knows she has to use those little things against every post player that she has to come up against. I'm just glad she finally broke it down and showed everyone the type of post player she could be -- that she is."

As the game wore on, especially during the first half, in which Fowles touched the ball on just eight of LSU's first 26 possessions, the big post seemed to grow more and more agitated at her predicament, once barking and glaring at teammate Allison Hightower after the sophomore guard gave her only a cursory glance in the post. A little like Kevin Garnett in both the manic intensity that sometimes crosses her face during games and the soft smile that crosses it after games -- not to mention her freakish athletic ability relative to that of her peers -- Fowles couldn't find a way to knock Vaughn off her game.

"Most post players will fight with me," Fowles said. "She don't do nothing but just body up. She's going to give it her all, and she just bodies up."

LSU coach Van Chancellor said it was the most physical game he had seen in his past 11 years of coaching, including 10 years with the WNBA's Houston Comets. That conclusion might have been as much a dig at the officiating as a compliment to the players, but as he also conceded, the physical freedom went both ways, and Fowles gave as good as she got in trading a string of hip checks, forearm shoves and body blows with Vaughn.

Of course, while it's easy in print to separate Vaughn and Fowles from the other eight players who shared the court with them, their one-on-one battle never was solely that. Stringer knows defense as well as any coach in the country, and Vaughn was able to play behind Fowles in part because of the help she had from players like Heather Zurich and Myia McCurdy doubling down from the wings.

After the game, Chancellor described the biggest challenge facing his team as finding a consistent third scorer behind Fowles and Quianna Chaney, who led the Lady Tigers with 16 points on 50 percent shooting Sunday. Hightower was the only other player who had scored more than 30 points in the team's first five games, but she managed just three off the bench against the Scarlet Knights. Stringer recognized that and exploited it to full effect -- just as she has done ever since arriving in New Jersey.

"The reason you can't do any of those things is they won't let you," Chancellor said of the mistakes opposing teams often bemoan after playing Rutgers. "They do a great job defensively here."

Early season games like this one between Rutgers and LSU are about discovering weaknesses and working on solutions, but as Stringer said about her team's inflexible vertical dimensions, at its foundation, a team is what it is.

LSU needs to find a third scorer and rebound consistently, but it's all built on the assumption that it has the most dominant senior center in the country. Rutgers needs to work on its rebounding -- Stringer said she likely will give Vaughn some minutes at power forward as the season continues in order to get both her and 6-foot-4 Rashidat Junaid on the court together. But Rutgers' success always will be built on the kind of defensive effort, individual and collective, exemplified by the image of Ajavon stripping the ball from Fowles in the closing seconds, the All-American center still preoccupied by trying to solve Vaughn after all those minutes.

"I think people like a lot of scoring and all that, but to be honest with you, I'm not willing to let people score like that," Stringer said. "I don't care anything about that."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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