Will Duke's balance in post offset Terps' quickness?
BOSTON -- The familiarity that comes from already having played three games this season hasn't bred much contempt between Duke and Maryland, but as the teams prepare to meet in Tuesday's national championship game in Boston, familiarity hasn't lessened a critical contrast between the teams, either.
Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. Heck, even Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett. Stark contrasts between equals offer rare glimpses of black and white in a world more often colored gray.
The Terrapins and Blue Devils have their fair share of common bonds, from energetic point guards in Kristi Toliver and Lindsey Harding and poised freshman standouts in Marissa Coleman and Abby Waner. But it's their distinctly different assets in the post that most clearly set them apart on the court.
By the end of the night on Tuesday, either Duke's patience and size or Maryland's athleticism and aggressiveness could determine which players get to climb a ladder with scissors in hand.
In Alison Bales, Mistie Williams and Chante Black, the Blue Devils have years of experience and inches of intimidation. Williams, who with 119 career starts bests the combined total of Maryland's Crystal Langhorne and Laura Harper, talked on Monday about what that size means for the team, explaining, "Coach G [Duke coach Gail Goestenkors] has said from day one that in order to win the national championship, our post play has to be top notch. It had to be good. And she pushed us so hard during the season to make sure that we were really competing against one another, because it's very rare you see a 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-3 [Black, Bales and Williams, respectively] post group."
Arguably no player has done more in the NCAA Tournament to raise her profile than the 6-7 Bales, who followed up an offensive breakthrough and most outstanding player honors in the Bridgeport regional with six blocks against Sylvia Fowles and LSU in the semifinals.
"[Bales] is often one that's overlooked," Harper said of her likely defensive assignment. "She's looked at as a defensive presence, but she wouldn't play for Duke if she couldn't do everything. She can play."
As can Black, at least against the Terrapins. Lean, quick and prone to displays of dazzling potential and mystifying inconsistency, she has been at her best in this series, including a career-high 19 points at Maryland in January.
"I think there could be an X factor coming off the bench," Goestenkors said about Black's potential role in the title game.
Maryland counters with Harper, Langhorne and Jade Perry in the post and Coleman on the wing. Only the 6-4 Harper is taller than Williams, the third-tallest player in Duke's rotation, but it's a quartet of quick, versatile players who together averaged nearly as many rebounds per game (28.1 rpg) as the entire rosters of their opponents (33.2 rpg).
In Sunday's upset win against North Carolina, Langhorne, Harper and Coleman combined for 59 points and 25 rebounds, shooting 21-for-33 from the field against the Tar Heels. Even Perry, who played just eight minutes before fouling out, did her part by using her allotment of infractions to wear down a red-hot Erlana Larkins. From Coleman's pinpoint passes to Langhorne's deft post moves and Harper's relentless board work, it was an impressive display of individual talents working in perfect unison.
Duke's defense was largely responsible for the team's win against LSU, but the same game plan that took away one-on-one looks for both Seimone Augustus and Fowles by offering regular and constant double teams is a bad fit against a Maryland team with not only Langhorne, Harper and Coleman, but perimeter threats Toliver and Shay Doron. The Blue Devils can be expected to continue offering Williams substantial help as she battles Langhorne in a man-to-man assignment, but the margin for error is much slimmer than against the Lady Tigers, as anyone on the court for Maryland is capable of making the Blue Devils pay for lapses in team defense.
"I don't think you can take anything away from them completely," Bales said about Langhorne and Harper. "Instead, you have to work on containing the things they can do. They are both active at both ends, so you try to take things away from them. I thought we did a poor job defensively against [Harper] last time, and she took advantage."
And therein lies the basic contrast. Duke's players may not have the individual explosiveness, or even the individual talent that Maryland has, but they are more the sum of their parts when they avoid breakdowns and work together. Just as Bales talked about the breakdowns that allowed Harper to score 17 points in Maryland's win in the ACC tournament, Williams later spoke about the confidence she had when the quicker Augustus drove to the baseline against her, knowing her teammate Bales would have her back in the lane.
It's no stretch to suggest that ACC tournament semifinal was the game most indicative of why both these teams are still playing basketball on the day after Opening Day for the Red Sox, which signals the true arrival of spring in Boston.
For the Blue Devils, the loss, in which they were outrebounded and allowed Langhorne, Harper and Coleman to combine for 46 points, served as a clear message to the team's post players that they needed to refocus on defense and rebounding. The turnaround in the NCAA Tournament has been both dramatic and ruthless.
And for Maryland, that win against the Blue Devils served as validation, even after an earlier win against North Carolina. By defeating a team which controlled the inside in beating them by 30 points at the end of last season and 18 points in Maryland's own gym in January, the Terrapins showed just how much their individual talents had learned to work together in the post. It's appropriate that the two teams that adjusted and improved as much as anyone in the country throughout the season will meet one more time with everything on the line. And for all their similarities, it still boils down to one key contrast.
Either Duke is too big and too balanced inside for Maryland, or Maryland is too quick and too explosive for Duke.
It's all there in black and white. Just look in the paint.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.