Defense, post game could determine outcome

Updated: April 4, 2006, 7:37 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The nation's two highest-scoring teams clash for the fourth time this season in the women's NCAA championship game Tuesday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET).

Expect a wide-open game with plenty of scoring as the ACC's Duke and Maryland take aim at the first national title for either.

Based on their starting lineups Sunday, here's how the two match up heading into the final:

Backcourt breakdown

Toliver
Toliver
Harding
Harding
Lindsey Harding (D) vs. Kristi Toliver (M): The Terps' Toliver, a freshman, is the better outside shooter with deeper range, but Harding has more true point guard skills. After sitting out last season for an undisclosed violation of team rules, Harding returned with a better insight to the game -- and that's due in part to sitting next to coach Gail Goestenkors on the bench last season and learning the game from a different perspective. Harding has done a fantastic job this season running Duke at both ends of the floor and is a little bit better passer and does better things with the ball than Toliver.

That said, Toliver is playing with extreme confidence, despite 12 turnovers in the semifinals. She is not playing like a freshman, and more importantly, coach Brenda Frese doesn't treat her like one. Frese has done an incredible job guiding the young Terps to the final, but perhaps one of her best coaching moves is being patient and playing through her freshman point guard's mistakes. That takes extreme trust, but also lets Toliver know it's OK to make a mistake and that her coach is behind her no matter what.

Toliver might be more explosive in getting to the rim, but Harding can go right or left and has a nice pull-up jump shot. She also does a good job of attacking the opponent with the ball.
Edge: Harding

Doron
Doron
Currie
Currie
Monique Currie (D) vs. Shay Doron (M): Doron, the Terps' only upperclassman who starts and plays quality minutes, has adjusted to being a very good role player. Doron has taken a back seat to Toliver in the backcourt. But on Sunday, when Toliver was struggling with turnovers, Frese put the ball in Doron's hands and the junior did a nice job taking care of it down the stretch. She can be a clutch 3-point shooter.

But Currie is an All-American who played an excellent game at both ends of the floor Sunday. Though she finished a few points shy of her season average with 13 points, her shot selection was very impressive and she made the right cuts and used screens as well as she could against one of the nation's best defenders in LSU's Scholanda Hoston. Currie also played very hard defensively and is a lot bigger, stronger and more dynamic with better footwork than Doron.
Edge: Currie

Frontcourt breakdown

Coleman
Coleman
Smith
Smith
Wanisha Smith (D) vs. Marissa Coleman (M): Coleman, another Maryland freshman, put in one of the best overall performances in the semifinals, finishing with 12 points (on 3-for-5 shooting), 14 rebounds (11 defensive), seven assists, three steals and just two turnovers in 36 minutes. She might be the most complete athlete on the floor on either team come Tuesday, and with her solid, 6-foot-1 frame and versatility could even have the advantage on the boards against taller players. Coleman just contributes in so many ways -- coming into the Final Four, she had hit 54 3-pointers on 48 percent accuracy from downtown -- and her screen that flattened UNC's Alex Miller was not only one of the most memorable moments from Maryland's win but also a key play and set the tone for the Terps. Smith, meanwhile, has started just 19 of Duke's 34 games this season, including all five tournament contests. The sophomore didn't even attempt a shot in 17 minutes against North Carolina but gives Duke another big, strong, physical presence.
Edge: Coleman

Harper
Harper
Williams
Williams
Mistie Williams (D) vs. Laura Harper (M): Both of these players are their teams' unsung heroes. Williams has been an integral part of Duke's success, ranking second in both scoring and rebounding. Like an offensive lineman who opens the holes for the tailback to run to glory, Williams does the Blue Devils' dirty work, too, whether it's grabbing key rebounds, banging inside or just keeping a play alive with a tip. She also sets monster screens and always prevents her opposition from getting comfortable.

Harper is the perfect complement to Maryland star center Crystal Langhorne. Harper doesn't get that many touches during the course of the game but makes the most of what she gets and and shoots an extremely efficient 54 percent from the field. She's aggressive, a solid shot blocker, can hit the short jump shot and play high or low in the post. Harper also communicates well and sets key screens for Langhorne. She could probably be a lot more productive for many teams around the country, but she's willing to remain a role player, which allows Langhorne to shine even brighter.
Edge: Even

Langhorne
Langhorne
Bales
Bales
Alison Bales (D) vs. Crystal Langhorne (M): Bales is playing the best basketball of her career and is more athletic than people give her credit for. She was outstanding in Duke's regional final win over UConn and came up big against LSU's Sylvia Fowles on Sunday. She has a very high basketball IQ and also is very efficient around the rim, and more than anything is playing with supreme confidence right now. Take her lightly and she will embarrass you, and at the very least, block a shot or two.

Langhorne, of course, can do the same and has had a remarkable season. A typical back-to-the-basket post, Langhorne led the nation in field-goal percentage this season (67 percent) and shot 10-for-12 from the field Sunday. She has great footwork, never takes bad shots and uses the pump fake to perfection. A left-hander, Langhorne loves to get the ball and turn over her right shoulder. Everybody knows that and yet no one has been able to stop it.
Edge: Langhorne

X-factors

Duke cannot allow Maryland to dominate the paint like it has throughout the tournament and certainly did Sunday. The Blue Devils must force the Terps to take outside shots. Yes, Maryland can be a very potent 3-point shooting team -- the Terps rank No. 1 in the nation with 40.5 percent accuracy on 3-pointers -- but right now, it's the lesser of two evils. On Sunday, Langhorne and Harper combined to score 47 of Maryland's 50 points in the paint and, more importantly, helped the Terps shoot 65 percent in the second half against UNC. In that game, Maryland didn't even attempt a 3-pointer until almost 13 minutes into the game and finished just 1-for-8 from 3-point range.

Duke must use its size inside to change shots and limit Langhorne's and Harper's looks. The 6-foot-2 Langhorne knows she can't shoot over the 6-7 Bales, and Langhorne's game plan has to be to try to draw Bales away from the hoop and create some space between them so she can pump fake and go around Bales. If Langhorne gets too close to Bales, the Duke center will be able to use her length and long arms not only to block shots but also to alter Langhorne's shooting angles.

Maryland must also look to continue to deliver early, quick entry passes to Langhorne to give her a rolling start against Bales. If the Terps wait and pass her the ball down in the lane, Bales will have had time to establish her position. The Terps must continue to use their speed.

The rebounding battle also will be a huge key. Maryland limited UNC's possessions by grabbing 10 more rebounds (41-31) than the Tar Heels and getting after it on the defensive glass (28 rebounds).
Edge: Maryland

Intangibles

The one thing Maryland has going for it is its incredible momentum, and that defies logic and experience. When you're on a roll, your confidence is booming. Having some swagger is so important to being successful, and it has Maryland playing at a different level, especially defensively. The Terps ranked in the 180s in scoring defense this season, but in the NCAA Tournament they are playing incredibly well on that end of the court.
Edge: Maryland

Depth

Waner
Waner
Black
Black
This one isn't even close. Maryland's bench didn't contribute a single point Sunday, while Duke's bench scored 20 points (or 31 percent of the Blue Devils' 64 points). Duke's Abby Waner is the one to watch off the bench. Earlier this Final Four, ESPN.com's Graham Hays wrote that the Blue Devils freshman has Diana Taurasi-like tendencies, and she does seem to have big-game potential and no fear when it comes to taking a clutch shot. She also knows how to get to the foul line and was 5-for-8 at the charity stripe Sunday and finished 2-for-2 from 3-point range for 11 points. Duke's Chante Black is a great sub in the post, averaging eight points and six rebounds in almost 20 minutes. Jessica Foley also can come in and doesn't hesitate to throw up the 3-ball.
Edge: Duke

Who wins?

Duke. If the Blue Devils can play like they did Sunday, with an incredible defensive effort (they also rank first in scoring defense) and very balanced scoring (four players in double digits and two more with seven points), they will be hard to stop.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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