Inside and out, semifinal will be special
LSU is the No. 1 overall seed in the women's NCAA Tournament and has the best mid-range game and top backcourt duo of any team going to the Final Four. But Baylor can make the same boast about its frontcourt. And when the two clash Sunday in the national semifinals, we'll see a very even matchup, with athleticism at every position and two teams that love to get up and down the floor.
A look at how the two match up:
No matter how you play her, Augustus will get off her shots. She's too quick, her off-the-ball movement is too good and she comes off screens very well. Wabara will stick to Augustus and contest every shot, but the key is being able to apply consistent pressure without fouling. Wabara must defend and contest, but not bail Augustus out by putting her on the foul line for easy points. She has missed just 16 free throws all season (making 111 of 127 for 87 percent).
Chelsea Whitaker lacks Johnson's experience, but Baylor's point guard has had a tremendous season and really came into her own this year. Whitaker, who also had an uncharacteristic eight turnovers Monday, averages only 4.8 points, but dishes 5.2 assists on average and boasts a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The biggest key for Baylor's backcourt and its potential for success against LSU is whether Chameka Scott can play like she did against North Carolina on Monday. After going 0-for-9 from 3-point range in her previous two games, Scott went 4-of-8 from downtown against UNC for 18 points. She also had nine rebounds and four steals.
Baylor's 3-point shooting could be a factor. The Lady Bears hit 4.6 treys per game and shoot 40.9 percent from downtown. LSU, the worst 3-point shooting team in the SEC this season, averages 3.8 treys and hits less than 35 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. Scholanda Hoston, who so far in the tournament has been most effective with her defensive efforts, is the top 3-point threat, sinking 44 on 34.6 percent accuracy.
LSU rarely looks for the 3. Rather, the Lady Tigers only take it if it's wide open. They prefer to slash to the basket, penetrate and suck in the defense to get open 17-footers or blow past the defense on the dribble. That's what separates LSU from other teams. The Lady Tigers always look to penetrate, taking that crucial second dribble to split the defense.
Obviously, if Scott can continue to hit 3-pointers, that'll spread out LSU's defense and give Steffanie Blackmon and Sophia Young more opportunities and more room to operate inside. If Scott comes out and misses her first couple attempts from downtown, LSU will be able to slough off her and sag in a little more on Baylor's posts. And the Lady Tigers won't have to worry about keeping up with Baylor's 3-point buckets.
If LSU has the edge in the backcourt, Baylor's frontcourt helps even things out. Young and Blackmon are the best post tandem in the game and combine for 33.5 points and 17.4 rebounds. Conversely, LSU's top three forwards/centers Sylvia Fowles, Tillie Willis and Wendlyn Jones combine for 19.8 points and 17.7 boards.
Young has been one of the best players in the tournament. Both she and Blackmon who also have the edge in experience can play down low, slash to the basket, are effective from the foul line in and typically take high-percentage shots. Like Augustus, Young also can create her shot in a variety of places on the court.
LSU's game plan will obviously include trying to take away the effectiveness of Baylor's post. And the Lady Tigers are known to attack the glass and are very good at being aggressive to the basket.
The squads average nearly the exact same amount of boards (LSU's 39.8 to Baylor's 39.7).
Neither team will go that deep at this point, but both have big-time weapons as reserves. Fowles hasn't started a single game but plays starter minutes, is extremely efficient with 11 double-doubles in her rookie campaign and actually ranks second in scoring at LSU. On the season, she averages 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.4 assists, and shoots 57.6 percent from the field. Fowles, who would start on most teams in the nation, averages 21.6 minutes but played 33 in the Elite Eight.
When she comes in, LSU doesn't lose anything; Fowles not only brings fresh legs, but an amazing caliber of talent. She's very active in the lane and will look to challenge every shot from Young and Blackmon. Fowles is playing like a seasoned veteran, but she hasn't played anybody as quick as Young yet in the post.
Emily Niemann hasn't started any of Baylor's 34 games, either, but is the Lady Bears' third-leading scorer at 9.4 points per game. More than half of her 110 field goals came from beyond the arc, where she shoots 46 percent (58 of 126). Niemann averages just less than four 3-point attempts per game, but she's an unsung player whose shooting can really stretch the opponent's defense.
LSU leads the series 6-2, including a 71-70 victory over Baylor on Nov. 14 in the State Farm Tipoff Classic in Texas. In that game (which was Baylor's season opener), the then-No. 2 ranked Lady Tigers led by as many as 21 points, and were up 19 at the half. But eighth-ranked Baylor rallied to tie the score with 1:40 to play before the game was decided on the final possession. After Augustus scored LSU's final basket on a 15-footer, Young hit one of two free throws for Baylor for the game's final points. LSU missed at the other end, then hung on in the final 26 seconds with a defensive stop.
Augustus finished with a career-high 33. Blackmon had 14 of her 22 points in the second half for Baylor. Johnson tallied 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds for LSU. Baylor shot 48.3 percent from the field (its 60 percent accuracy in the second half countered its 35.7 percent effort in the first) to LSU's 51.7 percent accuracy. The Lady Tigers outrebounded Baylor 34-25, but committed more turnovers (16 to Baylor's 13). Baylor is riding the nation's second-longest win streak at 18 games (behind Stanford) and has won 31 games this season, the second most in school history and most since 1977-78.
LSU won its first three games of the tournament by at least 30 points, but in its Elite Eight win over Duke, proved it can come from behind and survive a slow start.
Baylor's outcomes have been much closer, although one might suspect that the Lady Bears are at their best when they have a big lead. In the last five minutes against UNC, they played it safe and almost allowed the Tar Heels back into the game.
Both coaches are young and brilliant. LSU's Pokey Chatman is creating her own history and tradition at LSU, and Baylor's Kim Mulkey-Robertson continues to make history. This weekend, the former Louisiana Tech All-American and national champion will become the first woman to play in and coach in a Final Four. Both squads are seasoned and well prepared. They have both played great schedules this season, putting it on the line against several top-25 foes. LSU, after its first Final Four last season, probably has a slight edge in experience. Using their first matchup as a gauge is misleading. It was Baylor's first game of the season, and both squads are much better basketball teams than they were in November.
This one's close. They match up too well at every position. The key is how well Augustus plays or how well Baylor shuts down the all-everything superstar. LSU's the easy pick, but I'll take Baylor.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
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