LSU the favorite, but don't overlook surging Stanford
SAN ANTONIO -- It's not the Elite Eight matchup many of us anticipated, but top-seeded LSU vs. No. 3-seeded Stanford is just as enticing.
With two players from last season's Kodak All-America team, and a third player making a strong case to be included on this year's squad, talent abounds in Monday's San Antonio final (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). Reigning national player of the year Seimone Augustus, who leads the nation in scoring, and sophomore Sylvia Fowles, the country's sixth-best rebounder whose stock continues to rise, look to lead LSU to a third Final Four. Stanford's Candice Wiggins, who became the ninth freshman in history last season to earn Kodak honors, ranks third in scoring and is trying to get the Cardinal back to their first Final Four since 1997.
Stanford has twice won national championships, the most recent in 1992. LSU has never reached the NCAA title game.
Here's a look at how the two teams match up:
It's doubtful that Wiggins and Augustus will match up defensively. Instead, expect to see LSU's Scholanda Hoston guard Wiggins. Hoston is one of the best defenders in the country and was extremely effective in the Lady Tigers' Sweet 16 win. She took DePaul's main shooting threat, Allie Quigley, out of the game; Quigley finished just 2-of-11 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
Hoston is most effective in part because of her lankiness. She's long and quick, and that's definitely not something Wiggins saw against Oklahoma. Wiggins shot just 6-of-22 vs. the Sooners, and though the Cardinal proved they can win even when she's not at her best, Wiggins needs to play a lot better -- and she will take the big shots. If, however, Hoston denies her those opportunities, or if Wiggins fails to continue to get to the foul line (where she was 12-of-14), Stanford could be in trouble.
Stanford probably will look to guard Augustus by committee, with Krista Rappahahn and Jillian Harmon drawing the assignment most of the time. That's a tough job for anybody. Augustus is the reigning national player of the year and is incredibly effective even when she doesn't have the ball. The key to defending Augustus is to be physical with her -- make sure she's getting bumped around every step of the way. How Stanford reads and reacts to LSU's screens for Augustus could be the deciding factor.
But as LSU coach Pokey Chatman has pointed out, no matter what teams do to Augustus, she needs to react and remain involved offensively. Don't be surprised to see Augustus come out looking to establish some penetration inside. Her biggest concern is continuing to aggressively get to the basket and the free-throw line as often as possible.
The Cardinal's ability to knock down 3-pointers is a big concern for LSU. Stanford shoots the 3 very well and has more players capable of hitting from downtown than DePaul, LSU's opponent in the regional semifinals. And if the Blue Demons, who shot just 32 percent from downtown this season, can hit eight treys against LSU, what kind of damage can Stanford, which shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc, do on Monday?
Rappahahn, in particular, is a concern. She drained 5-of-10 3-pointers against Oklahoma and has hit 86 this season. Both she and Wiggins (team-high 90 3-pointers) shoot 43.7 percent from downtown.
LSU not only doesn't have an answer of its own from 3-point range but also needs to step up its perimeter defense. Hoston shoots the 3-ball well (38.1 percent) but not with as much consistency (40 treys, or 1.2 3-pointers per game).
Rappahahn set the stage early for Stanford on Saturday, and LSU must constantly be aware of her on the perimeter.
With Fowles playing so well, LSU has the edge in the paint, although the advantage isn't as big as I once thought after Stanford got impressive performances from Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin on Saturday. Oklahoma was one of the nation's best rebounding teams, but the Cardinal were right there with the Sooners on the glass and played tremendous help defense on Courtney Paris.
Smith had a career game Saturday and is playing with tremendous confidence right now after her huge performance against Paris. Also, Smith might have a better overall post game than DePaul's Khara Smith, and that could make Fowles extend a lot of defensive energy.
In the first half against DePaul, LSU wasn't able to be as suffocating defensively in the paint as normal because Fowles was consistently pulled out to the 3-point line while tracking Khara Smith. Brooke Smith's versatile game also will probably pull Fowles away from the basket, though not quite to that range.
Size inside won't be an issue for either team.
I've picked LSU to emerge from San Antonio all along. The Lady Tigers have the talent to reach their third straight Final Four, but there's still some question as to whether they can keep winning when they're only playing 20 minutes. LSU trailed by three points at halftime in the second round and was tied at 31 with DePaul in the Sweet 16. The Lady Tigers have been able to put away games in the second half, but since Stanford raced to a 19-4 lead over OU, LSU probably can't afford another sluggish start.Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.