Three keys to the Dayton Regional
DAYTON, Ohio -- Candace Parker and Courtney Paris are the stars of the show at this weekend's Dayton Regional, but avoiding the fate that befell top-seeded Duke might ultimately hinge as much on each star's supporting casts as anything Parker and Paris do on Sunday. Consider three numbers worth tracking in addition to Parker's and Paris' lines.
Parker's unique talents might be the difference between Tennessee and just about every other program in the nation, but Sidney Spencer and Nicky Anosike symbolize the difference between Pat Summitt's team and an excellent mid-major program like Marist.
Able to play on the perimeter, pass the ball and get up and down in transition, all while enjoying a distinct size advantage on just about anyone the Red Foxes can put on the court, Spencer and Anosike are the kind of all-around athletes that set apart top-tier programs from the rest of the field.
And nowhere should that be more evident on Sunday than through their work, along with Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle, on the glass.
Pat Summitt suggested early in the season that this was not one of her better rebounding teams, a belief backed up by a relatively paltry rebounding margin, at least by Tennessee's traditionally dominant standards. But if the Lady Vols can't control the boards against a team that has been outrebounded this season, they're going to have trouble closing out the Red Foxes.
"I think that the biggest thing, as far as going inside tomorrow, is going to be our offensive rebounding," Anosike said. "So that's definitely a point of emphasis. I think we definitely need to rebound and use our height advantage there more than anywhere else."
Marist allowed an average of 12.3 offensive rebounds per game this season, which isn't bad considering that between field goals and free throws, its opponents missed 38.8 shots per game. The Red Foxes aren't going to win the battle on the glass, but they have to manage the deficit, especially when it comes to second-chance points.
"We know Sidney Spencer is a great offensive rebounder and gets a lot of boards that way," Marist's Rachele Fitz said. "She's going to be a main person to box out. Even if she's not the one making the layups but kicking it out to someone else to make an easy jump shot or a layup, we don't want to give any team second-chance shots."
Expected to open with the impossible assignment on Parker, Fitz knows she'll have plenty of help when Tennessee's star gets the ball. Few teams play help-side defense as well as the Red Foxes, but that also leaves tired players that much farther from the player they're assigned to block out.
"There've been many times that people have gotten offensive rebounds over me and I'm getting yelled at, because I can't let that happen," Fitz said. "It's just hard that you have to know, after you run down from playing offense and go right to defense, you have to play good defense, turn around and box someone stronger, or just as strong as you, out. It's definitely a mental thing, and you just have to keep reminding yourself, 'I've got to box out, I've got to box out.' I think it's going to be one of the main keys for this game."
Marist only gets one shot at playing the perfect game. Limiting Tennessee to the same total whenever the Lady Vols have the ball is a big part of doing that.
Mississippi's pressure defense foiled a pair of teams with uncertainty at point guard in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, forcing Nevada and Maryland into a combined 52 turnovers.
Sunday will test whether Sherri Coale's certainty can end that run from the Rebels.
Oklahoma's coach turned her team over to freshman point guard Jenna Plumley after Texas A&M's pressure forced Oklahoma into 24 turnovers during a 78-68 loss on Feb. 10, the team's third loss in four games. The Sooners haven't looked back, racing to 10 consecutive wins with the freshman playing the bulk of the minutes and mixing her team's inside-out talent in just the right proportions.
"As a point guard, it's just mainly about reading -- reading everything, being able to see the floor well and just being able to be one pass ahead of everybody," Plumley said.
Plumley, who committed four of those turnovers in the loss against the Aggies, isn't immune to the kind of mistakes that led the Sooners to average more than 18 turnovers per game overall this season (they're averaging 17 per game in the last 10 outings). The difference is that with the diminutive freshman running and gunning, those turnovers at least come with the Sooners pressing the attack instead of retreating from it.
Ole Miss knows neither lack of size nor lack of experience is likely to keep Plumley from coming at them at full speed, but the Rebels feel league competition has prepared them to cope with Plumley's quickness.
"LSU has a little-bitty point guard, and she's quick as lightning," said Ashley Awkward, who will spend most of the game matched against Plumley. "So we expect [Plumley] to be quick. We actually think it might be difficult to slow her down, but we're going to do our best. Once you go up against a little-bitty person like that, coming from a little person, I know that those people are quick."
Of course, Plumley's shoulders aren't the sole repository for the weight of Oklahoma's success or failure in beating Mississippi's pressure.
Point guards frequently are compared to quarterbacks, and like their football brethren who can pile up incomplete passes on drops and botched routes, they're often on the statistical hook for a teammate's mistakes. Plumley's assist-to-turnover ratio will reveal a lot about how her team is handling Mississippi's pressure, but it's a reflection of much more than her play.
"When it comes down to it, you've got to be able to read," Plumley said. "Especially your teammates -- it's not necessarily just a one-person thing, where you have to get them the ball. It's about them meeting the pass, too; something that we kind of worked on. We saw that Ole Miss, they like to jump out in passing lanes, and if you're not going to go meet that ball, they're going to take it away."
Stressing that same need to get to the middle of the floor, senior Erin Higgins explained what the other players on the floor needed to do to assist their point guard.
"I think the best way to get out of trapping is to shoot layups and continue to shoot layups," Higgins said. "So if we can handle the pressure, get the ball to the middle, or break the press and get the ball inside and shoot layups, they're more than likely going to be forced to come out of the traps."
Oklahoma's fate rests on the entire team's ability to work together in handling Mississippi's pressure, but that begins with the ball in Plumley's hands.
Marist senior Alisa Kresge will be on an island against either Shannon Bobbitt or Alexis Hornbuckle on Sunday, and any chance at survival depends on her rationing the one resource as crucial to her as water is to a castaway: fouls.
It's a stat the defensive whiz has converted from punishment to positive attribute.
Kresge led the Red Foxes in personal fouls this season (92), totaling four more than post presence Meg Dahlman and 23 more than any other player on the team. But despite averaging nearly three fouls per game, the three-time MAAC Defensive Player of the Year fouled out just once in 34 chances and led the team in minutes played.
To her, fouls are no more of a distraction on the basketball court than the hair she keeps held in a ponytail.
"It's kind of funny, I feel like I've played in foul trouble my entire life," Kresge said. "But I really try not even to think about it, because I feel like sometimes when I worry about it -- like the game I did foul out -- I felt like I was worried about it. I try to be smarter; I tell myself no stupid reaches -- you do tell yourself that -- but I try not to even think about it."
With a rotation that isn't likely to go much deeper than six players, Marist can't afford to lose any player to foul trouble. But when Pat Summitt singles out Kresge as one of the keys to the game, it offers definitive evidence of the special necessity of her staying on the court.
"Their point-guard play is very good, and how we match up with them at that position is very important, as is how we defend in transition," Summitt said.
That means Kresge has to deal with either a much quicker player in Bobbitt or a much stronger player in Hornbuckle (or most likely, both at various times), without allowing them to take her out of the game. It's a different challenge than she faced against either Ohio State or Middle Tennessee.
"In the Ohio State game, the guard [Maria Moeller] was more like me -- she didn't really want to shoot much, so I knew I could help more off her," Kresge said. "But if I'm going to come up against a big-time shooter, I know I have to be on her a lot more. That's something that the coaches do a great job scouting, and they give us what they want us to do, whether we go over ball screens or under ball screens, considering what they do best."
If what they do best forces Kresge to step over a line that she has become adept at tiptoeing along, Marist's punishment will be severe.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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