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Can zone defense slow down Taurasi?

4/8/2003

ATLANTA -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt can claim six NCAA championships, 22 SEC titles, 11 Olympians, 17 Kodak All-Americans and 821 wins. She is one of the best basketball coaches ever to walk the planet. But now comes one of the most difficult challenges of her career: stopping Diana Taurasi.

Connecticut's junior guard has absolutely shredded the Lady Vols in her marvelous career. She has posed a matchup problem that Summitt has simply not been able to solve. Taurasi has averaged more than 20 points per game over her career against UConn, including a 32-point performance (a career high at the time) in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 5, 2002.

Taurasi might be the only human being alive that can say she's got Pat's number. And now Summitt has to come up with some antidote -- call it Agent Orange, or DDT (Defending Diana Taurasi) -- to get that seventh ring she craves.

And guess what? She might just have it. The Zone Defense.

Now, the zone is not exactly unheard of in the women's game, though it is rare. And the 2-3 is certainly not something that Taurasi has never seen before. But the Lady Vols are using it much more -- and much more effectively -- than they did when they lost to UConn in January.

"We've been working on the zone all season long," Tennessee freshman guard Shanna Zolman said. "We now have confidence in it. We no longer just stare at the ball and have people cutting in behind us."

And if it works as well in Tuesday night's title game as it did Sunday night against Alana Beard and Duke, the zone might be the key to snapping UConn's three-game winning streak over Tennessee.

The zone has one major strength and one major weakness. The strength is it provides help defending streaking guards. Man-to-man, which Tennessee used almost exclusively to start the season, puts the onus on whomever is guarding a player such as Taurasi to stop her from scoring. As we know, that's just about impossible. Taurasi can drive, dish, post up, rebound -- everything. Tennessee just doesn't have a player who can handle Taurasi both inside and out.

That's where the zone comes in. If Taurasi drives by her defender in a zone setup, Ashley Robinson or Gwen Jackson can slide over. Now Taurasi must get by two players to create her shot. And passing gets much tougher down low in a zone since there is so much traffic underneath.

"Every time a player drives, there is help in a zone," said new Minnesota Lynx coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, who last week said she would use a zone to stop Taurasi. "And there is help a lot sooner than in man-to-man."

Sunday night provided the perfect example. Duke led Tennessee at halftime, and then the Lady Vols decided to use more zone in the second half. And after getting outscored by three points before the break, Tennessee outscored Duke by 12 in the final 20 minutes. And when it came down to Alana time late in the game, the Duke star had a ton of trouble driving the lane and creating plays. Her second-half assist total: zero.

"Players like Taurasi and Beard are not going to go scoreless," Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick said. "The key is not letting everybody else get their average. The zone changed Duke's tempo and got them to set up and not attack the basket."

Or in the words of forward Shyra Ely: "It worked. We executed."

Now to that one major weakness. The zone allows shooters to shoot. That's a problem when the shooter is Taurasi, who has NBA range. Most experts (including my colleagues at ESPN) say that giving Taurasi an inch of extra space is tantamount to throwing the game. But Taurasi is going to score her points. Isn't it better if she scores from the perimeter, without drawing fouls and getting others involved?

Also, even Taurasi won't make half of her 3-point attempts. But if she's able to find Jessica Moore or Ashley Battle under the basket, they will make more than half their layups. Alana Beard dumped 29 points on Tennessee last night -- almost half her team's points. But Iciss Tillis and Lindsey Harding were fairly quiet

Taurasi is going to have a great game no matter what, but Tennessee has a real shot of winning if it keeps a lid on superstars-in-waiting Ann Strother and Barbara Turner. And keep in mind: Like UConn, Tennessee is a transition team. Lawson and Jackson will get more easy buckets off long rebounds than short ones.

"You're going to create more steals," McConnell-Serio said, "and more easy buckets."

Tennessee is not going to play zone the entire game. The Lady Vols will switch up to jolt the Huskies, they will pressure UConn in the backcourt with a 2-2-1 trap, and they will also use a zone alignment that looks like a man-to-man. They will bait Taurasi into slashing just like a football fake zone baits a quarterback into throwing. Again, Taurasi has seen it before, but the combination of zone and man-to-man might slow down Taurasi enough to affect her rhythm.

"At some point," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said, "she's gonna miss those shots."

When a national championship is on the line, and the best women's college player ever is in the way, it might be worth the risk that "some point" will happen Tuesday night.

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.