Point-guard play (good and bad) favors Lady Vols this time
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- In the latest installment of a series Albert Einstein would have loved, time again proved relative in a game between Tennessee and Rutgers. The same clock that couldn't run out quickly enough for Tennessee in the longest first half of the season -- and arguably of the program's entire illustrious history -- provided just enough ticks in the second half for an epic comeback and a 55-51 win on the road.
A year after a controversial finish in Knoxville left New Jersey lawmakers pontificating about investigating the clock operation at Thompson-Boling Arena, Rutgers wasted few seconds staking its claim to the rematch. By the time the halftime buzzer granted the Lady Vols a reprieve, they found themselves in a 20-point hole.
Put another way, Epiphanny Prince had 16 points at halftime; Tennessee had 13.
As Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said after her team outscored the Scarlet Knights 42-18 in the second half, the game was quite clearly a "tale of two halves." But more than that, it was a tale of one position within those two halves. Both Tennessee and Rutgers entered the game with unsettled situations at point guard. And as each team's success settling those situations waxed and waned during the course of the game, the tide, and eventually the score, changed.
The young rotation of point guards that Rutgers has turned to this season in order to keep Prince free to play as a go-to scorer allowed the Lady Vols to use their three-quarter-court trap. But in addition to the fundamental difficulty inherent in using a pressure defense without the benefit of scoring to set it up, the pressure proved to be more of a liability than an asset in the first half.
Crossed up by an unexpected cut from Prince, Brittany Ray's pass on the game's first possession sailed out of bounds for a turnover. Tennessee had no such luck derailing Prince the rest of the half, as the Scarlet Knights' guard finished the period with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Time and again, Ray and a partner, often Khadijah Rushdan, methodically worked a two-man passing game to get the ball past half court.
It wasn't a clinical dissection, to be sure, but it was effective enough. More importantly, it allowed Prince to receive the ball in her own half, rather than expending energy getting it up the court, and allowed her to receive it in positions where she could attack a recovering defense and either drive to the basket or take an open jump shot.
But despite the lead, Rutgers was walking a fine line in relying primarily on Prince for its first-half production. When Tennessee came out of the break with both the echoes of Summitt's locker room tirade ringing in their ears and a zone defense, Rutgers struggled to find the kind of looks it had been getting in the first half.
"I think we came out a little bit sluggish," Ray said. "We weren't moving the ball."
As its lead was quickly chipped away -- cut in half in just six minutes -- the Scarlet Knights couldn't answer. They shot just 30 percent in the second half, but just as importantly, they attempted seven fewer field goals than they had in the opening stanza.
"We hesitated on the press, which speaks to the issue we had in the first place," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "That was, how confident were we going to be with our guards in situations? Which has normally been our strength, and it's clearly not. We took too much time trying to break the press, which was really not that difficult."
An outstanding shooter adjusting to playing significant minutes as a primary ball handler at this level, Ray was as good a player throughout the game as Rutgers had on the floor to complement Prince. But between them, Ray, Rushdan and freshman Nikki Speed still finished with four assists and eight turnovers in 54 collective minutes.
"That's the most dangerous spot on the floor not to have leadership," Stringer said. "Brittany is a freshman as far as point guard. Hats off to her anyway, because she is doing things she hasn't really done before. If I could get that same thing out of Khadijah and Nikki, we may have something. But they have gotten better. I mean, from the frying pan into the skillet, just throw them out there."
On the flip side, to fall back on the familiar gridiron metaphor, Tennessee looked like a football team playing without anyone under center in the first half. Summitt pulled freshman starter Briana Bass two minutes into the game and didn't put her back in until late in the half. Nobody -- not Bass, nor Shekinna Stricklen, nor Alicia Manning (freshmen all) -- could seize the reins as Tennessee's cart rattled toward the precipice.
In all, 10 Lady Vols took the court at some point in the first half, and each and every one turned the ball over at least once. And with Rutgers essentially playing man-to-man on dangerous shooters Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund and zone elsewhere, Summitt's team finished with four field goals and just a single assist to counter those turnovers.
But just as Rutgers' offense collapsed in on itself in the second half, Tennessee found a spark in its point guards, albeit most obviously from their shooting. Bass hit an early 3-pointer and committed just one turnover in 12 second-half minutes. Stricklen played the full 20 minutes in the second half with just one turnover, a number more than made up for with back-to-back 3-pointers that cut the lead to eight and fueled the rally.
"Oh my gosh, they've just stepped up huge," Bjorklund said. "Especially Bri pushing the tempo; she knows when to push now and when to pull it back and set it up. And I think, the more experience they get, the better they're going to get. Also, Bri hitting 3s -- she knows when to shoot now and when not to. She's starting to figure that out. And Strick's stepping up and hitting big shots when she needs to."
For Stricklen, who, three months into her college career, might have the deepest range in the college game and whose 11 rebounds helped fill the void left on this day by Vickie Baugh's absence, it's all part of the growing process. As unfair as the comparisons are for both, it's tough not to look at Bass and Stricklen and see Shannon Bobbitt in the former and Candace Parker's mismatch-inducing passing skills in the latter.
"I'm getting there," Stricklen laughed. "I haven't never played [point guard], but I'm getting used to it."
In the first half, the Lady Vols looked like the team without a solution at point guard. In the second half, Rutgers fell victim to it. Only time will tell whether either has the pieces in place for a permanent solution. But with these two teams, it always comes down to time.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.