- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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When the ACC announced it was expanding to Boston, is this what the conference meant?
The Final Four in Beantown this weekend will have a decidedly ACC flavor to it, with Duke, Maryland and North Carolina traveling north in search of the league's first national championship since 1994. For Duke and Maryland this marks a return trip to Massachusetts -- both played conference games at Boston College for the first time this season.
But if you were going to pick one team to send to Boston to stop the ACC's power grab, LSU would be a solid choice. The top-seeded Lady Tigers won the San Antonio Regional, giving senior Seimone Augustus one more shot at winning a national title.
The four teams that made it this far answered a lot of questions and appear to have few holes, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few things to ponder while awaiting Sunday's semifinals. Consider these four questions, none of which have anything to do with the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow.
Can Maryland win two more games with Shay Doron MIA?
Everyone knows by now that the Terrapins are a team on the rise in women's college basketball, making what is likely the first of many Final Four appearances under coach Brenda Frese. Led by explosive fresh faces like sophomores Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper and freshman Kristi Toliver, Maryland displayed few nerves and little awe in Albuquerque dispatching Baylor, last season's NCAA champ, and a senior-led Utah team in regional play.
But as the Terps sprint at full tilt toward the top of the heap in women's basketball, it would be useful to have an experienced voice reigning them in a little. After all, unless you've been there before, you never know when the crest of a hill might be hiding a sheer drop into disappointment on the other side.
Junior guard Shay Doron should be the voice of reason, having learned about the perils of postseason play in back-to-back second-round losses in her first two seasons, not to mention having a wealth of international experience for her native Israel. But it's difficult to lead from behind, and that's exactly where Doron finds herself after mediocre performances in the first four rounds. In wins against St. John's, Baylor and Utah, Doron shot 3-for-23 from the field, including missing each of her 12 attempts from behind the arc. In fact, since the NCAA Tournament opened, Doron's 3-point accuracy has dropped 4 percentage points, to 38 percent (54-for-141). Playing alongside Toliver in the backcourt, Doron also notched as many turnovers (10) as assists in those three games.
Doron's performances were overshadowed by Langhorne's big night (15 rebounds and a career-high tying 34 points) against Sophia Young and the Lady Bears, and Toliver's career-high night (in both points with 28 and 3-pointers with six) against Shona Thorburn and the Utes.
It's not out of the question that Maryland could win the national title without Doron finding the bottom of the net before she has scissors in her hand, but on a team riding a wave of youthful exuberance, it wouldn't hurt to have one of the few voices of reasoned experience leading by example.
Can LSU keep playing from behind?
At what point does LSU coach Pokey Chatman run out of fiery halftime speeches? Or at the very least, at what point will she start delivering them before the game even starts?
A nail-biter in the regional final against Stanford was the first game LSU won by less than double digits in this year's NCAA Tournament, but the Lady Tigers have led at the break just once in four games (against Florida Atlantic in the opening round), causing their coach endless frustration.
The upside of the Lady Tigers' struggles early in games is that they might be nearly impossible to beat if they string together 40 minutes of quality basketball. But the downside is that, despite appearances to the contrary so far, this isn't really a team built for playing from behind.
The Lady Tigers do play outstanding defense, with Stanford the first team to shoot even 40 percent from the floor against them in the first four rounds. That kind of pressure makes it easier to string together a run and build a rally, but this is still a team that has to build its comebacks two points at a time.
Through four games, LSU has hit just five 3-pointers. Actually, Scholanda Hoston has hit five 3-pointers (she's 5-for-17). The rest of Chatman's roster hasn't hit a single shot from behind the arc (0-for-9). And it's not just there that the Tigers are giving away free points. After shooting a mediocre 69 percent from the free-throw line during the regular season, the Tigers are hitting just 67 percent (55-for-82) from the charity stripe in the tournament.
Augustus and Sylvia Fowles deserve every bit of praise coming their way, but it's asking a lot of even that tandem to beat Duke and either Maryland or North Carolina if the team keeps trading 3-for-2 from the floor and 2-for-1 at the line.
Can Ivory Latta take it from here?
It's ironic that in North Carolina's only loss of the season, its front line put together a very productive collective effort. In an overtime loss at home to Maryland on Feb. 9, Erlana Larkins, Camille Little and La'Tangela Atkinson combined for 42 points and 25 rebounds while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor (although it should be noted that they also played a role in allowing Maryland's trio of Langhorne, Harper and Marissa Coleman to post similarly impressive totals).
But the message in that loss is that while the Tar Heels need someone else to step up each night in support of Latta, her performance in the Final Four is what will decide North Carolina's fate. Against the Terrapins on that day in February, Latta shot just 7-for-20 from the floor and 4-for-11 from behind the arc. Those totals don't match up with the season marks (46.8 percent shooting overall and 41.8 percent from 3-point territory), but they do match her efforts of late.
In wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Tennessee, Latta shot just 38 percent from the field, a number somewhat obscured by her heroics against the Boilermakers and in a surprisingly easy win against the Lady Vols in the regional final. But as the stage gets bigger and the lights brighter, the emotional and energetic Latta might be feeling the pressure to live up to the media's billing as player of the year favorite and her own billing as the female equivalent of Allen Iverson.
And just like it was when she tried to do a little too much in a game against Maryland, that could be a problem for the Tar Heels.
Can Duke handle a couple of potentially dangerous matchups?
Those Duke kids are wicked smart, so let's break this down into a two-part question (no need to get a new blue book to answer the second question):
(A) Do the Blue Devils have an answer for Augustus?
The recent performance of Alison Bales, named most outstanding player of the Bridgeport Regional after posting a career-high 22 points against USC in the second round and leading the Blue Devils with 15 points and eight blocks against Connecticut, as well as the long and athletic frame of reserve post Chante Black gives Duke as good a shot as any team at containing LSU's Fowles down low. It's far from a guarantee, but at least they have a fighting chance.
The outlook isn't so bright for containing Augustus. The Blue Devils have a lot of parts on their roster; in fact, they might have the best overall collection of skills among the four teams in Boston. But arguably the only thing they don't have is an athletic, lock-down defender on the wing. Monique Currie is athletic and good on defense, but you can't ask her to guard Augustus for 40 minutes and have enough energy left to stand up after timeouts, let alone lead the team on the offensive end.
Augustus burned the Blue Devils for 24 points on 10-for-20 shooting in last year's regional final, and as much as Lindsey Harding's return and Abby Waner's arrival make this a better Duke team, they don't do anything to solve that dilemma.
(B) If the first question is answered affirmatively, can the Devils exorcise their demons against North Carolina?
Logic says no team, even the Tar Heels, can beat a team as good as Duke six times in two years. Then again, logic would have suggested the same thing about beating them three times, four times or five times.
Like the Yankees and Red Sox before Dave Roberts stole second, David Ortiz went nuts and Curt Schilling went Frankenstein on his own ankle, the Tar Heels just seem to have an edge on the Blue Devils that trumps any amount of talent evaluation and statistical analysis you want to offer up in defense of Gail Goestenkors' team.
Then again, the Final Four will be played a short trip down the green line from Fenway Park.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.