Expect LSU, Rutgers to get defensive

Updated: April 1, 2007, 12:04 PM ET
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

They play the stingiest defense in the nation and don't have a single senior on their roster.

CLEVELAND -- Sylvia Fowles is focused on helping LSU (30-7) do something it has failed to do in three Final Four appearances the past three seasons -- win.

And Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer isn't sure what kind of defensive scheme would slow down the Lady Tigers' 6-foot-6 junior center.

"I don't know what we're going to do,'' Stringer said Saturday. "She is one of the few players that she will change your scheme. … This is a one-woman wrecking crew.''

Fowles dunked in practice Saturday, but so far this NCAA Tournament, she hasn't had to throw one down to energize teammates or intimidate foes. Her speed, jump hook, ferocious rebounding and blocked shots present enough of a challenge.

Still, an LSU victory is no slam dunk, and acting LSU head coach Bob Starkey has seen enough film on the Scarlet Knights to know they will find a way to disrupt LSU's flow.

"They're the one team that I can say they're every bit as quick as we are, and that, right there, helps them immensely,'' Starkey said. "The things we've been able to do against teams that don't have speed, we won't be able to do against them. And their quickness creates problems for us.''

That quickness could allow Rutgers to deny passes inside to Fowles by harassing the passer rather than swarming multiple defenders on Fowles. That would leave Kia Vaughn to guard Fowles mostly on her own.

"I go out and play each and every post the same,'' Vaughn said. "I make them work for what they want to get done.''

Either way, expect a low-scoring game. LSU and Rutgers have won all season with defense. LSU is the nation's top-ranked defensive team, allowing the fewest points per game at 49.4 and the lowest opponents' field-goal percentage at 32.6 percent. Twice this season, LSU won while scoring fewer than 50 points,

In its last two victories, Rutgers held Duke to 52 points and Arizona to 45. -- Associated Press

LSU Lady Tigers or Rutgers Scarlet Knights?

Both actually, as two similar teams clash in a colossal matchup Sunday night (ESPN, 7 ET) in the Final Four in Cleveland.

A porous defense early in the season has stabilized and the Scarlet Knights have been locking down opponents in the postseason. Through four games, Rutgers' opponents have been held to an average of 47 points per game, with Michigan State notching the high at 57.

Impressive showings against No. 1 overall seed Duke and third-seeded Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament have 4-seed Rutgers riding a crest of momentum. The Knights have won 12 of their past 14, with the only losses coming against Connecticut, which Rutgers also beat in that span (LSU eliminated UConn in the Elite Eight).

The Lady Tigers have had the best scoring defense (48.8 ppg) and field-goal defense (33 percent) in the country all year long. They stifled high-scoring UConn in the regional final to advance to the Final Four (the Huskies were held to 50 points, nearly 30 below their average).

LSU likes to funnel everything toward 6-foot-6 shot-blocking junior Sylvia Fowles in the paint.

Scoring will be difficult, so points will be at a premium in this semifinal. The tone will be set in the middle as LSU's Fowles takes on Rutgers' 6-4 sophomore center Kia Vaughn.

Fowles is playing the best basketball of her career in the NCAA Tournament, capped by a spectacular 23-point, 15-rebound, six-block performance against Connecticut. Since the resignation of former head coach Pokey Chatman several weeks ago, Fowles has taken on the leadership responsibilities for this team.

The rest of the Tigers have also been making consistent contributions. Junior Quianna Chaney is a streaky scorer with 3-point range. Point guard Erica White, a 5-3 junior guard, is a scrappy defender and very quick off the dribble. Freshman guard Allison Hightower, junior forward Ashley Thomas and junior guard RaShonta LeBlanc provide good depth.

Rutgers works inside-out with the vastly improved Vaughn, who is extremely strong on the low block. She too has become a valuable leader for her team and can often be counted on for double-digit points and rebounds.

Rutgers' perimeter speed sets it apart, with Big East Defensive Player of the Year Essence Carson and her high-scoring running mate Matee Ajavon (regional Most Outstanding Player) leading the way. They are very disruptive on the defensive end and both can create their own shots offensively.

LSU must find a way to handle the Scarlet Knights' trademark "55" defense -- a full-court, man-to-man pressure defense -- to stay close.

Acting LSU head coach Bob Starkey is 4-0 since taking over for Chatman. She left LSU on March 7 after allegations surfaced of a sexual relationship with a former player. Starkey has been a settling influence LSU, making all the right coaching moves in the postseason.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, the only women's coach to lead three programs to the Final Four, is making her fourth trip to the national semifinals and second with Rutgers (2000). She kept the team on course for a championship despite early-season injuries and tough losses.

Stringer recently guided Rutgers to its first Big East championship and now has her sights set on the program's first national championship. LSU also is seeking its first title, despite playing in the last three Final Fours.

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.