Defensive efforts will determine Sunday's winner

Updated: January 27, 2006, 5:07 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

Don't be fooled by the gaudy offensive statistics that Duke and North Carolina lay down on opponents. Yes, they are the top two scoring teams in the nation. Yes, the scoring is impressive and the multitude of ways they can score is phenomenal.

CURRIE COMES UP BIG IN SERIES
Who has consistently come up big vs. UNC? Monique Currie.

In nine career games aginst the Tar Heels, the Duke senior has averaged 18.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.9 steals. And after failing to hit a 3-pointer in her first six games in the series, Currie is now 8-for-17 (47.1 percent) from beyond the arc.

Currie has scored at least 20 points in five of the nine games and had 30 points (a career best), 12 rebounds and three assists in the ACC championship game as a freshman. Last season, Currie averaged 24.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.0 steals in three contests against UNC.

But make no mistake: Duke and North Carolina are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the country because of incredible defensive performances. When they clash in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown Sunday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET), revel in the ways the Blue Devils and Tar Heels can shut people down and the multitude of stoppers each team has. And then watch them quickly convert the opponent's miscues into points.

Let's start with the two games that caught everybody's attention this year -- the similar deconstructions of the UConn and Tennessee mystiques.

Carolina ripped the Huskies by 23 points in Hartford, 77-54. The Heels harassed UConn into 16 turnovers, leading to 23 points. Connecticut mustered just 35 percent shooting from the floor.

Duke put the hammer down on Tennessee on Monday, winning by 22 points, 75-53. Devils defenders held Shanna Zolman to 0-of-7 shooting. Duke collected 15 steals while forcing Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker to turn the ball over a combined 13 times.

Duke and Carolina are among the top-rated defenses in America thanks to size, speed and depth.

Keys to Carolina's defense

The Tar Heels love to trap. Anywhere. Anytime. If you pick up your dribble, it's over. If you take the ball to a corner, it's over. Their calling card is a half-court, 1-3-1 zone press that falls back into a man-to-man.

Duke's 5-foot-8 point guard, Lindsey Harding, will come face-to-face with 6-2 Camille Little at the top of the zone. Little is quick and long-armed.

If Harding can see over Little, next in line is 6-2 La'Tangela Atkinson. She happens to be just as quick as Little and can jump higher. Lightning-quick guards Ivory Latta and Alex Miller patrol the wings, denying access along the sideline.

In the back is 6-2 Erlana Larkins, ready to clean up any mistakes. Larkins is among the fastest post players in the country.

If those five Tar Heels get tired (which is rare), coach Sylvia Hatchell simply looks down her bench and admires the depth. She can choose from three more 6-footers with tremendous speed and athleticism. Rashanda McCants, Christina Dewitt and LaToya Pringle all have made valuable contributions off the bench and are good enough to start in many other programs.

Dissecting Duke's defense

Duke hangs its hat on man-to-man pressure. The Blue Devils will switch things up from time to time to give UNC different looks. But in crunch time, the Blue Devils want to take you straight up and challenge you.

They can defend hard on the ball and get into passing lanes because they have two of the best insurance policies in college basketball. Even if you manage to take Duke's perimeter players off the dribble, 6-7 Alison Bales and 6-5 Chante Black are waiting in the paint to discourage any intruders in the lane.

When 5-6 Tar Heels point guard Ivory Latta ventures inside Sunday night (assuming she can get by Harding, one of the country's top perimeter defenders), she'll always have to be aware of the shot-blockers. Duke averages seven rejections per game.

The Blue Devils also help extremely well off the ball. Monique Currie, Abby Waner and Wanisha Smith love to sneak around the perimeter and pick opponents when they aren't looking. Mistie Williams is adept at taking charges and disrupting opposing forwards with her muscle.

Patience will pay off

You can expect to see plenty of double teams and traps on ball screens from both teams Sunday. The post players are all pretty good passers out of double teams, particularly UNC's Larkins and Duke's Williams.

While the coaches are no doubt filling up their scouting reports with specific situations on handling screens for specific players, being able to adjust on the fly will be crucial. Players must be ready to switch against all the quickness on the court, and each side has enough shooters to require defenders to fight over the top at times.

The goal for each defense is to make opponents play faster than they want to. Patience will be critical. The team that can keep its wits when the game is being run at such a high rate of speed is the team that will come out on top.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

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