Fowles, rebounding could decide semifinal
Last year, LSU and Duke clashed with a trip to the Final Four on the line. On Sunday, the two meet again -- in the national semifinals (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). A pair of senior All-Americans -- LSU's Seimone Augustus and Duke's Monique Currie -- lead the way for two programs that have been among the best over the past few years but are still looking for that first NCAA title.
A look at how the Blue Devils and Lady Tigers match up:
LSU sophomore Sylvia Fowles really can be the difference maker. If she has a massive game, LSU should win; if she doesn't, Duke has to be considered the favorite.
By now, it's no secret Fowles must stay out of foul trouble. If she's on the bench, that cuts down on her chances to provide a very important double-double, and it also means coach Pokey Chatman will have to rely more on Florence Williams, an undersized post, to battle Duke's incredible post depth, including the talented trio of Mistie Williams, Alison Bales and Chante Black, all of whom are at least 6-foot-3.
Rebounding also will help determine the winner. Duke has the advantage in this category with a plus-11 rebounding margin, but LSU needs to get on the boards to help limit the Blue Devils' offensive possessions. LSU has shot just 19 percent (5-for-26) from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament, while the Blue Devils have six players who have hit at least 20 treys this season. When all you're sinking are two-point baskets, it's tough to keep up with the nation's top-scoring offense; that means the Lady Tigers must make more baskets and shoot a high percentage. If they're not efficient and executing, the Lady Tigers will be in trouble.
That said, LSU's defense will challenge Duke. The Blue Devils average 87 points per game, but the Lady Tigers give up just 53 per game, with opponents shooting only 35 percent from the field. They are long and quick and contest shots most opponents can't get to. LSU always has somebody running at the shooter.
As I wrote earlier this season, Duke's Lindsey Harding sitting out last season for an unspecified violation of team rules actually seems to have been a blessing in disguise and a tremendous period of maturation. Harding benefited greatly from sitting next to coach Gail Goestenkors on the bench, game after game. Harding absorbed everything and really began to see and understand the game like a coach and now is able to break down the game possession by possession, something great point guards must do.
And while Currie is the team's best all-around player, Harding might be Duke's MVP. She has superbly run the Blue Devils this season and has an uncanny knack for understanding personnel. No matter who's on the court with her, she knows how to best set up her teammates and what plays to run to get the best out of them. Harding uses both sides of the floor well, is really good at reading defenses and, while she's an OK scorer, is a strong rebounding guard.
At LSU, Erica White also has emerged as a star. It's not easy to take over a team that Temeka Johnson ran to perfection and led to two straight Final Fours. When Johnson graduated -- and went on to win WNBA Rookie of the Year honors last summer -- a lot of people questioned whether Augustus would be able to get the Lady Tigers to a third consecutive national semifinal appearance without a stud beside her in the backcourt. Turns out, Augustus didn't have to do it by herself because White has exceeded every expectation. She has been terrific.
Augustus and Currie are actually very similar players. Both have incredible all-around games and neither takes bad shots. No one can really mark Augustus. Duke just needs to run at her consistently and try to force her to shoot further away from the basket and challenge her range. Nobody shoots the midrange shot like Augustus, who is fantastic when it comes to hitting the pull-up jumper off one or two dribbles whether she's in the lane or on the baseline.
While the Blue Devils will probably defend Augustus by committee, expect Scholanda Hoston to mark Currie for most of the game. Hoston is one of the nation's best defenders, and with her length and quickness, the 5-10 guard has been very successful at containing some of the country's best players this season.
By the time LSU arrives in Boston, Hoston will be well-prepared to match up with Currie. The offensive player always has the advantage because she knows where she's going; the defender can only react. But Hoston will have watched plenty of film and will know Currie's nuances. At this point, execution will come down to how well players run their routes, how the opponent reacts to screens and whether Currie and Augustus can still be successful on their second and third options. These are two well-coached teams that will look to take away the stars' preferred options. So how Currie and Augustus adjust is key.
Advantage: Harding has the edge over White, but the talent of Currie and Augustus makes it a push.
Fowles needs to be efficient and hit her shots, using her 6-6 frame and incredible strength to her advantage. She has the quickness to go around Duke's Bales (6-7) and Williams (6-3). But Black, a 6-5 sophomore, is more athletic and could match up with Fowles; still, Fowles should have the advantage, especially considering her strong defensive presence.
The key for the Blue Devils is to force Fowles to shoot over them. If Fowles ends up relying on face-up jump shots and doesn't get to the rim with her speed, it's going to be a long night for her.
Mistie Williams has had a great season; I never expected her to be Duke's second-leading scorer (11.4 points). Always known as a great defender, Williams rounded out her offensive game this season. Not a lot of plays are drawn up for her, but she has learned how to score, whether it's at the foul line, a putback or a little pick-and-pop. She has been consistent and will have an edge when LSU's Ashley Thomas is on the floor. Thomas is a little undersized and Williams is more accomplished around the basket.
Freshman Abby Waner is certainly someone who can bring in a lot of offense off the bench and averages almost nine points in about 21 minutes per game. She's never afraid to take a shot, either. Same goes for Jessica Foley, a 3-point specialist.
The Lady Tigers lead the all-time series 2-1. LSU won the first meeting 79-66 in the Sweet 16 in 2000 in Richmond, Va. The following season, Duke downed LSU 56-45 on Nov. 11, 2000, in the Women's Sports Foundation Classic in Albuquerque, N.M. Last year, second-seeded Duke fell to top-seeded LSU 59-49 in the Elite Eight in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Duke should win but is still looking tight in big games. The Blue Devils played an extremely ugly game in the Elite Eight, and that might be the result of the intense pressure they're putting on themselves to finally win the program's first national title. Now, can they relax enough to play their game? When Duke is on, the Blue Devils can look unstoppable, moving the ball better than anybody. Duke cannot be afraid to win. Sometimes it seems like the Blue Devils are playing not to lose -- they need to play to win.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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