Defense carries Duke back to NCAA title game
BOSTON -- If Sunday night's first national semifinal between Maryland and North Carolina at times resembled scenes from the line of scrimmage in an NFL game between two teams intent on running the ball, the second semifinal had more of the appearance of a chess match.
And not one of the exciting ones.
During a first half that featured the fewest combined points in Final Four history, the game between Duke and LSU was about as entertaining as watching Gary Kasparov scratch his nose.
But after wowing fans early in the season, and at one point moving to the top of national rankings, by showing off its best impersonation of the Phoenix Suns -- the Blue Devils scored more than 100 points six times in their first 12 games -- the team advanced to its first national title game since 1999 by shutting down two-time Wade Trophy winner Seimone Augustus and her sidekick, Sylvia Fowles. In winning 64-45, the Blue Devils put an exclamation point on a postseason run built on defensive gems.
It's surprising that any team could limit Augustus to 14 points on 6-for-18 shooting, including a scoreless first half. But it's truly astounding that the team responsible for ending Augustus' college career on that kind of note only recently stopped treating defense as a minor annoyance standing between its players and their next offensive possession.
"This team was so offensive-minded in the beginning [of the season] that Coach G [Duke coach Gail Goestenkors] was like 'You guys, offense isn't always going to work for us,' " senior Mistie Williams said after the game. "There was a point where we were scoring like 98 points a game. Our defense wasn't there, but of our offense, we were scoring at will.
"But we knew when it got to playing tougher teams, we were going to have to play defense. And Coach G just drilled that into our heads: defense and rebounding. And over the course of the season, we have brought our defense to where it needs to be to win."
Augustus and Fowles can attest to that. LSU's dynamic duo totaled 22 points, or one point less than Augustus averaged on her own before Sunday's game.
"We wanted to force her to curl off screens," Williams said about Duke's defensive plan against Augustus. "That way, Lindsey [Harding] could help off, and I think everyone who had her just played their best defense. It's hard to shut down someone who scores 23 points a game, and we did a phenomenal job."
Williams wasn't kidding about "everyone" playing a part. Abby Waner, Jessica Foley and Harding were just three of an array of Duke players who took turns matching up one-on-one with Augustus.
"Really what we were thinking about with Seimone was just to limit her touches," Waner said after her own challenging introduction to Final Four play. "She's a great, great player, and I was very excited for the chance to guard her in the first place. We respected her as a player, but we didn't want her to get any touches at all because we know that when she gets the ball in her hands, things are going to happen. That's what comes from being player of the year."
But Augustus wasn't the only focus of Duke's attention. Fowles played an equally important role in helping LSU beat Duke in a regional final last year, and the sophomore center has gotten better on the offensive end in her second season under Pokey Chatman. Together, Augustus and Fowles were responsible for more than half of LSU's points this season.
In Saturday's news conferences, Fowles talked about looking forward to the challenge of going against Duke's Alison Bales in a battle of giants, but Goestenkors had less interest in throwing the two bigs at each other. Although Bales was responsible for double-teaming Fowles throughout the game, it was Williams who drew the initial defensive assignment.
"I love guarding the best post players; I take pride in it," Williams said about giving up several inches to Fowles. "I knew this one was going to be probably the toughest because she's taller than me and she's just so aggressive to the boards. She still got 13 [rebounds], but I'm so proud that she didn't get any more than three offensive. That says a lot for our post group. I came out guarding her, and everyone else was boxing her out, as well. She just seemed frustrated, like she's not used to that. And I'm just so happy that we could accomplish something like that."
The Blue Devils weren't flashy with their stifling defense, forcing just 13 turnovers, but that seemed to be part of the plan. By committing to make life difficult for LSU's stars, Duke forced the Tigers into wasting possessions on poor shots.
Consider one sequence from a first half full of offensive breakdowns.
Three LSU players attempted 3-point shots in the opening 20 minutes before Scholanda Hoston, the only Lady Tiger to average even one 3-pointer per game this season, got her first look from beyond the arc. And two of the players who fired up long shots in the first half had hit just one all season.
It was just that kind of night for LSU.
In trying to play down her team's defensive masterpiece, Goestenkors might have unintentionally offered the most accurate depiction of events.
"Several teams have played them in a similar fashion," Goestenkors said about LSU. "You know who the go-to players are on LSU's team. And we're not the first team to sag off [Erica] White. She had seen that before. So we just tried to mix things up a little bit."
Teams have known all season that stopping Augustus and Fowles were the keys to victory against LSU. Yet 31 times in their first 34 games, the Lady Tigers came out on top.
Duke scored just 64 points Sunday night, the team's second-lowest total of the season. And in case you're wondering, the season low came in Tuesday's overtime regional final against Connecticut.
It turns out the Blue Devils still outscore people; they've just found a new way to do it.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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