Defense, post game could determine outcome
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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