Scarlet Knights shut down Fowles for spot in final
CLEVELAND -- Walking onto the court for the start of the second half of Sunday's national semifinal against LSU, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer was flanked by a pair of troopers from the New Jersey State Police. It was a symbolic gesture of support between school and state, the same treatment coach Greg Schiano got during the football team's wildly successful run to a bowl game, and the two female troopers at the Final Four volunteered to come on their own to Cleveland for the ceremonial duty.
It's not as though Stringer needed the extra line of defense.
In fact, based on what the Scarlet Knights did to keep anyone in a white jersey from getting the ball anywhere in the vicinity of LSU star Sylvia Fowles, the kids in red are already a better-trained protective unit than the Secret Service and the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.
It got so bad for Fowles that the 6-foot-6 junior All-American who had averaged 21.3 points per game in her team's past three games went nearly 11 minutes without a field goal attempt at one point in the first half.
"That was a big part of our game plan," Zurich said of the constant attention. "We just wanted to make sure that we would make her work for everything she got against two or three people. We tried to stay involved and make it as difficult as possible for her to get the ball to get position. It was all a preventative method."
It might have been preventative, but it was hardly reactionary. Rutgers took the game to LSU by depriving the Lady Tigers of their main weapon, using defense as a weapon as dangerous as any Matee Ajavon jump shot.
En route to the Final Four, LSU had been able to knock down open looks as opponents scrambled to stop the bleeding against Fowles. But on Sunday against the Scarlet Knights, the Lady Tigers suddenly looked uncertain. Junior point guard Erica White did her best to keep the Lady Tigers in the game with nine first-half points, but the rest of the team shot just 19 percent in the opening 20 minutes.
Executing a defensive system with the same precision the Princeton men once used at the other end of the floor, Zurich and McCurdy, among others, managed to sag down on Fowles without straying far enough to create shooting space for any of the other Lady Tigers.
"We just had to know personnel, know where everyone's range was from, basically," Zurich said. "Our assistant coaches did a great job telling us how far off we should sag and just what position we should be in to make sure we could get back out. I think it was all our assistant coaches, doing a great job getting us to know personnel."
And as good as Fowles was down the stretch in the regular season and in the NCAA Tournament, she had started showing strain from the massive offensive responsibility she carried for the Lady Tigers. After hitting at least half her shots in all but one of LSU's first 20 games this season, she hit half or more in just seven of the team's final 18 games.
As defenses devoted more and more attention to her, Fowles masked some of that shooting inefficiency through willpower and hustle, piling up offensive rebounds at a staggering rate to give herself countless second chances. But she managed just two offensive rebounds in the decisive first half against Rutgers and found herself consistently pushed away from the basket as her teammates launched errant shots.
It didn't even matter who was boxing her out.
Perhaps most remarkably, Rutgers executed its plan to near perfection despite losing Vaughn to foul trouble midway through the half. After picking up her second foul on an overzealous box-out against Fowles with 11 minutes remaining, Vaughn watched the rest of the period from the bench (or from the floor in front of the bench, often dropping to her knees to slap the court and urge on her teammates).
What she saw was the evolution of a freshman from project into participant, as Junaid refused to yield ground on defense to either Fowles' energy or her accolades.
"At first, I was a little nervous," admitted Junaid, a gentle giant if there ever was one. "When Coach Stringer first called me, I didn't hear her at first and the whole team was yelling at me. Then I got in the game, and I just knew I had to play and limit her touches, stop her from getting the ball."
Having worked against her younger and taller protégée in practice all season, Vaughn had far fewer reservations about Junaid's ability to handle the task than Junaid herself might have had.
"I wasn't nervous, because Ra can do it," Vaughn said. "Ra doesn't know her strength right now, but she can do it. When people are nervous, the fight comes out more. You tend to fight more and you start battling."
Working against Vaughn in practice every day prepared Junaid to handle her expanded role, but the rest of the team had its own experience to call on after playing a total of five games against either Duke's 6-7 Alison Bales or Connecticut's Tina Charles, two of the best post players in the nation. The Scarlet Knights weren't familiar with Fowles, but they knew how to deal with a team that wanted to get the ball inside.
"It helped us an awful lot because we dealt with so many big players that, when it came to her, we already knew basically what we were going to do," McCurdy said. "We already knew little things that we were going to have to do on her. Everything built up to this point."
And when the run came late in the first half, as Ajavon and Essence Carson rained down 3-pointer after 3-pointer (Rutgers finished with 10 treys on the night), Fowles was nowhere to be found. Headband askew after battling for position in the post, she finally ended her field goal drought in the final minute of the first half, only to miss the same short turnaround that had decimated so many teams before. And whether the frustration that showed on her face at the moment came from the referee's silent whistle or the rigors of banging against two big bodies for the better part of an hour in real time, Fowles looked like someone unsure how to stop a free fall.
The clock still had to run out the minutes and seconds of the second half, but a quartet of Scarlet Knights who combined for just 15 points in the game already had decided its eventual outcome.
And if Stringer ever needs a real phalanx of protection, she could do worse than Vaughn, Junaid, Zurich and McCurdy.
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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