Game analysis of UNC-Tennessee
CLEVELAND -- We're courtside to provide instant analysis from the Final Four's second semifinal, between North Carolina and Tennessee:
HOW THE GAME WAS WON: Candace Parker didn't have a great first half, playing just eight minutes before drawing her second foul. And even after the break, she didn't come out and immediately affect the game like we might have expected. At times, she even was visibly frustrated by North Carolina's defense, which took away her favorite move (faking right and going left-shoulder).
But the sophomore hit two key free throws to give Tennessee a little bit of a cushion when it was clinging to a one-point lead with 34 seconds to play. Parker also played well defensively and grabbed some huge rebounds in the last few minutes to lead the Lady Vols to a come-from-behind 56-50 victory over North Carolina on Sunday.
The Tar Heels had led by as many as 12 points with 8:18 to play, building the lead early in the second half by revving up their defense and converting steals and rebounds into high-percentage field goal attempts after both teams shot horribly in the first half.
But Tennessee turned the table and used the exact same tactics to chip away at UNC's lead. The Lady Vols, who shot 24 percent in the first half and just 27 percent for the game, finally started getting some steals and converting them into points. As usual, Tennessee's defense led the way. At halftime, the Lady Vols had just six points off turnovers, but they finished with 22.
Still, you can't help but think UNC gave away the game. In the final eight minutes, Tennessee converted five steals into eight points and hit six free throws while UNC committed eight turnovers. The Tar Heels ended up shooting 35 percent from the field.
It also hurt UNC when LaToya Pringle fouled out with 4:35 left and UNC clinging to a four-point lead, 48-44. At that point, UNC had to replace the starter with Jessica Breland, who has been solid this season but -- let's remember -- is just a freshman.
Tennessee also won the battle of the boards, 43-42, and finished with just 21 turnovers after committing 14 in the first half. After the break, the Lady Vols simply took better care of the ball, and they hit 20 of 26 at the foul line.
Alexis Hornbuckle had a huge game for Tennessee. As usual, her contributions don't always show up as points (she did have nine, but on 4-for-16 shooting), but the junior guard had two huge rebounds in the final 1:16. She also tallied eight rebounds and five steals.
But who would have thought Tennessee would win on a night when it had no offensive continuity and point guard Shannon Bobbitt dished just one assist in 31 minutes. In fact, the Lady Vols got just eight assists for the game (of course, they only hit 17 field goals!).
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Parker. She ended up with a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. She had a presence both offensively and defensively.
BIG DISAPPOINTMENT: We said all along that UNC's Three L's -- Ivory Latta, Erlana Larkins and Camille Little -- had to play well. But they all struggled and combined to shoot 10-for-26 from the field, including Latta's 2-for-7 effort from downtown, and commit 11 turnovers.
Some people grumbled when Larkins was left off the Kodak All-America team, and this could have been a statement game for her. Instead, the junior had a nightmare game with four points and took only four shots in 33 minutes, which is ridiculous. I'm very surprised she wasn't more involved in North Carolina's offense. She was just a nonfactor in the game.
POOR WNBA AUDITION: Little, a senior, missed way too many layups. She was 4-for-9 from the field for nine points, one rebound and five turnovers.
STAT OF THE GAME: Carolina went to the foul line only eight times. In the regular season, the Heels attempted 817 free throws, 244 more than their opponents. When you're not shooting well, you have to get to the foul line.
BIG STEP-UP: Tennessee's Nicky Anosike finished with 14 points, almost double her 7.4 regular-season average. She was just 3-for-7 from the field but was 8-for-12 at the free-throw line, with seven rebounds, four blocks and three assists. But her defense was the big difference.
BIG EARLY STORY LINE: Who would have thought the team that played the best offense Sunday (at least through three halves) would be defensive-minded Rutgers?
Both Tennessee and North Carolina came out shooting horribly. North Carolina missed its first 13 shots before Latta broke the trend with a field goal with 13:10 left in the first half. Tennessee wasn't much better and, with seven minutes left in the half, was just 2-for-14.
At halftime, the Tar Heels were 9-of-32 (28 percent) from the field and the Lady Vols were 7-of-29 (24 percent). Entering the Final Four, UNC was shooting 47 percent from the field and Tennessee was right behind at 45 percent.
The poor shooting, especially several missed chippies by both team, turned the game -- very surprisingly -- into a defensive battle. These are two teams that typically can generate points even when the first option isn't working. With UNC averaging 84.6 ppg and Tennessee at 74.5 ppg, I can't remember two teams that usually shoot so well not knocking down these easy shots.
Foul trouble played a huge factor, as both teams' Kodak All-Americans had to exit early. Parker was whistled for a charge (her second foul) on UNC's Alex Miller with 12:28 to play. Then Latta picked up her third foul with 8:57 left, with the Tar Heels up 8-7. Parker was 1-for-4 from the field for four points in eight minutes. Latta was 1-for-3 for two points in 11 minutes.
UNC's most surprising stat of the half was that the Tar Heels had zero second-chance points despite averaging 17 offensive rebounds per game coming in. Tennessee also had no second-chance points.
BIG MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Little needed to assert herself and had a little more room to operate when Parker went out. You can't play passively in these type of games. Same goes for Larkins, who didn't use her counter moves and failed to score a point. At half, Latta, Larkins and Little combined for six points.
WEIRD TREND OF THE HALF: Offensive charges. Tennessee was whistled for three in the game's first 12 minutes. In addition to Parker, Anosike and Sidney Spencer also got called for a charge.
PLAYER OF THE HALF: Rashanda McCants isn't the second -- or third or even fourth -- option for UNC. But she hit 4 of 9 shots (more made field goals than any other UNC player) for a team-high nine points.
SMART PLAY OF THE HALF: When Tennessee coach Pat Summitt subbed Parker out with two fouls. UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell left Latta in when she drew her second foul and Latta went into the locker room with three.
STAT OF THE HALF: UNC's defense was doing its job and helped harass Tennessee into three shot-clock violations. The third was especially painful -- it came right after a Lady Vols timeout in the final 30 seconds.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.