Four questions for the Final Four
One team will leave Cleveland with a national championship. Three others will leave the Final Four with a summer's worth of questions about what could have been. So what might the teams that come up short be asking themselves about on the long trip home? Here are four potential quandaries for the four finalists.
Not since 2002 has a team won the national championship game while hitting fewer 3-pointers than its opponent. And like every other team in Cleveland, LSU doesn't have the kind of overwhelming edge in talent that Connecticut team had with Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Williams (the Huskies actually managed to run past Oklahoma without hitting a single 3-pointer in the title game).
To get past Rutgers in what shapes up as a defensive battle and get the championship that has eluded them in three previous consecutive trips to the Final Four, the Lady Tigers likely need to outshoot both the Scarlet Knights and a potential championship opponent from deep.
And that's either likely given recent history or unlikely given the law of averages, depending on how you look at the numbers.
The Lady Tigers hit 25 3-pointers in the first four rounds on the NCAA Tournament, hitting at least four in every game and shooting 45.4 percent from behind the arc. Through the regular season and SEC tournament, they had never hit more than 18 3-pointers in any four-game stretch and shot 31.6 percent from behind the arc.
In 33 games before the NCAA Tournament, they hit more than five 3-pointers just three times. They did it twice in the first four rounds, hitting a season-high nine against UNC-Asheville and seven against Connecticut in a regional final.
To put it mildly, the Lady Tigers are in a collective zone. And they need to stay there to take full advantage of playing alongside Sylvia Fowles.
Baylor's Sophia Young certainly knew her way around the paint, and Maryland's Crystal Langhorne is a terrific post player, but the last true center to lead her team to the title was Ruth Riley in 2001. No matter how great a center is -- and Fowles is one of the best in a long, long time -- elite defensive teams can survive any post player if they go unpunished for collapsing on her and leaving her teammates open on the perimeter.
Even when Cappie Pondexter was patrolling the perimeter, Rutgers didn't necessarily rise and fall on the performance of one individual. Systems don't get much more balanced than the one C. Vivian Stringer employs with the Scarlet Knights. So it's not like Matee Ajavon has been a one-woman show on the road to Cleveland.
With Ajavon in foul trouble in a game played in East Lansing, Mich., sophomore center Kia Vaughn led the team in scoring against Michigan State in the second round. With the clock ticking down against Duke, freshman Epiphanny Prince took on just about everyone the Blue Devils had on the court at the time to score what proved to be the game-winning basket.
And you can't say anything about Rutgers without focusing first and foremost on the defensive pressure and intensity exemplified by Essence Carson and practiced by the entire roster.
None of which manages to take Ajavon out of the spotlight as Stringer's team heads to Cleveland.
Getting a roster of young players on the same page with Stringer when it came to defensive philosophy might have been the turning point that set this team on a path to the Final Four, but it didn't hurt getting Ajavon on the same page with her jump shot again.
After sitting out the first four games of the regular season while recuperating from offseason surgery, Ajavon shot just 36.7 percent from the floor in nonconference play.
But beginning with a modest 4-for-6 night against St. John's to open conference play, Ajavon found her stroke, hitting 47.1 percent of her shots against Big East opponents, including 42.1 percent from behind the arc.
The field-goal percentage has dropped to 37.9 percent in the NCAA Tournament, but the confidence and willingness to step up when the team needs someone to take charge hasn't wavered. Ajavon has scored 20 points in three of four games, providing a safety valve for a talented offense that still bogs down at times worse than anything on the highways in New Jersey.
One through five, there might not be a more talented group in Cleveland than the quintet of Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins, Camille Little, Rashanda McCants and LaToya Pringle. Put them in a gym for some pickup runs over at nearby Cleveland State and they might not leave the court all afternoon.
So are they covering a potential weakness or disguising a secret weapon?
At times this season, North Carolina reserves Jessica Breland, Iman McFarland, Alex Miller and Heather Claytor have looked like the latter. Perhaps most notably given the way the bracket has unfolded, Breland proved to be a particularly pointed thorn in Tennessee's side while posting six points, six rebounds, two blocks and three steals in a 70-57 win for the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill on Dec. 3.
But the overall production from the bench has been less than spectacular, and no reserve jumps out from the roster quite the same way as Allison Hightower at LSU, Myia McCurdy at Rutgers or even Alex Fuller at Tennessee.
Against Purdue in the regional final in Dallas, Sylvia Hatchell left the space in front of the scorer's table all but abandoned, getting just one field goal, three rebounds, three assists and four turnovers in 35 minutes from her reserves.
As good as the Tar Heels are, will that work in what they hope will be two games against very good, and very high-energy, defensive teams? If not, someone like Breland or McFarland will need to show that Hatchell has been saving her best trick for last.
At some point this week, I'm going to have discussed everyone on Tennessee's roster as an X factor for success in Cleveland (Cait McMahan might be a challenge). But consider these totals from Tennessee's three losses this season.
Sidney Spencer: 7-for-37 FG (5-for-19 behind the arc), 10 rebounds, 5 turnovers
Shannon Bobbitt: 4-for-15 FG (2-for-8 behind the arc), 8 assists, 10 turnovers
Now consider their season averages.
Sidney Spencer: 42.7% FG (41.5% behind the arc), 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 turnovers
Shannon Bobbitt: 37.6% FG (40.9% behind the arc), 2.8 assists, 1.9 turnovers
It doesn't take a great many words to explain why things aren't going to go well when your two best outside shooters don't hit shots and your point guard creates more possessions for the opponent than baskets for her teammates.
The good news on Rocky Top is Bobbitt had just two turnovers in 55 minutes in Tennessee's wins against Marist and Mississippi in the Dayton Regional and set an early tone in the final with her spot-on outside shooting. But now she faces an all new challenge. Although the Red Foxes were among the most discipline defensive teams in the field and the Rebels were among the most distracting defensive teams, the competition will get stiffer in Cleveland.
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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