Rutgers' defense on Parker a big key in final
A look at how Rutgers and Tennessee match up heading into Tuesday night's national championship game (ESPN, coverage begins at 7:30 ET) in Cleveland:
KEY MATCHUP: The Scarlet Knights did a tremendous job shutting down LSU star Sylvia Fowles on Sunday and will no doubt throw the same swarming defense at Wade Trophy winner Candace Parker. Every time the Tennessee junior gets the ball in the paint, she should expect anywhere from two to four bodies on her. Rutgers kept a post behind Fowles, then had sophomore guard Heather Zurich sag to front her. The Scarlet Knights' wings also would collapse inside.
As mentioned in our Final Four preview, the Lady Vols actually run an extraordinary amount of post screens and back-screens to get Parker on the block. Rutgers plays great defense, but other Tennessee opponents this season have gotten caught up fighting to get down on the block. Watch for Parker to mix it up, though, and step out on the wing, too.
Kia Vaughn is a good defender and will get a lot of chances against Parker. But again, Rutgers will use multiple defenders. The key is whether Vaughn and Rashidat Junaid and help-defenders Zurich and Myia McCurdy can come up as big as they did Sunday.
KEY MATCHUP, II: No one's playing better than Rutgers' Matee Ajavon, and she's going to challenge Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle. In fact, I think this is the most important one-on-one matchup of the game.
Both players are big-time competitors. Ajavon always plays hard and gets after it at both ends. Though she can get a little loose with the ball sometimes, she's a player who can live through her mistakes because of her constant hustle.
Hornbuckle will be busy whether Ajavon has the ball or not. Obviously, the Tennessee junior must try to deny Ajavon the ball, and when the Rutgers' junior gets it, Hornbuckle must force her away from inside. Ajavon was 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the first half Sunday, so Hornbuckle can't give her any room on the perimeter, either.
Additionally, Hornbuckle must contribute offensively. She's the type of player who might not always score big, but she does all the little things like rebound and make steals to bolster her line score. Tuesday, Tennessee needs her to hit some shots. She was just 4-for-16 Sunday.
X FACTORS: The Scarlet Knights' offensive success Sunday came off of running that UCLA high-post shuffle cut in their half-court offense. There are several ways to defend it, including pressuring the ball, trapping on the side-screen roll or having a "big" step out and deny the ball reversal pass from the post to the shooter.
I think Tennessee's best option is to have a post deny hard, which will force the Scarlet Knights to fade that cut, meaning Rutgers' players end up catching the ball on the weak side a step or two further out than they did Sunday. That takes away Rutgers' foul-line jump shot and helps push the Scarlet Knights past their comfort zone around the arc. More importantly, it gives Tennessee's defense a chance to rotate back to that side of the floor.
Obviously the Lady Vols will look to guard the 3-point line after the Scarlet Knights hit eight shots from downtown in the first half Sunday. A lot of people forgot that Rutgers led the Big East in 3-point percentage (36.3) but were quickly reminded when the Scarlet Knights opened 8-for-10 from downtown against LSU. It's that quality over quantity cliché -- the Scarlet Knights might not shoot the 3-ball that often, but they shoot it well.
Rebounding is always a key, and it'll be important for Rutgers to work really hard and keep the Lady Vols off the offensive glass, especially if Tennessee comes out shooting poorly again. Both teams also need to take care of the ball since both the Lady Vols and Scarlet Knights feed off turnovers.
Lastly, Lady Vols point guard Shannon Bobbitt and Hornbuckle have to help Tennessee take away Rutgers' initial fast break. Bobbitt was very fun to watch Sunday. She is just a waterbug with exceptional lateral foot speed. But she must help Tennessee find some offensive continuity, something that was lacking much of Sunday's game. She had just one assist in 31 minutes.
PRESSURE'S ON: The Scarlet Knights are very good at taking away the opponents' strength and making the foes' role players beat them. On Sunday, LSU couldn't hit the long-range looks it got when the Scarlet Knights sagged off the perimeter to focus on Fowles. But Tennessee senior Sidney Spencer must knock them down Tuesday. They don't even necessarily have to be 3-pointers, but that top of the foul line jumper will be crucial for Tennessee to win.
Also for the Lady Vols, Nicky Anosike must sink her layups, Hornbuckle has to hit when she slashes to the rim or pulls up for the jumper and Bobbitt needs to add some 3-pointers.
BOTTOM LINE: Rutgers' offensive patience was outstanding on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights often made six, seven or even eight passes on a possession before shooting.
I was more impressed with Rutgers' defense on Fowles than any other performance -- team or individual -- in Sunday's semifinals. If the Scarlet Knights can shut down Parker in similar fashion, Rutgers might take home its first NCAA title (and second national championship after winning the 1982 AIAW crown).
But if Tennessee plays like it did in the final eight minutes against North Carolina, Pat Summitt will win her seventh title and first since 1998.
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.
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