Final Four teams getting defensive
CLEVELAND -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt thought one team played really well Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C. And that team wasn't wearing orange. Tennessee lost 70-57 to North Carolina then, and now we have a rematch in the Final Four on Sunday.
"I think we learned a tremendous amount from our game at North Carolina," Summitt said in a teleconference. "It taught us a lot about what we needed to improve upon. I thought that on the offensive end, we didn't execute very well. They had an awful lot to do with it.
"Certainly, we learned a lot about the importance of transition defense. I remember after the game, I just basically took responsibilities for what had happened because of our lack of commitment to defending the ball in the full court."
Meanwhile on the opposite side of the Final Four bracket are two teams in Rutgers and LSU that also get it done -- do they ever -- with defense. If you haven't figured it out, that's the buzz word for this Final Four. And if that doesn't thrill you -- hey, I'm not going to lie, it doesn't thrill me -- well, at least North Carolina (84.6 ppg) and Tennessee (74.5 ppg) do tend to score a lot, too.
Tennessee's Candace Parker has proven she can be as omnipotent on defense as she is on offense -- which is the last step that virtually all of Tennessee's "immortals" take. Parker has already taken that step as a redshirt sophomore.
And North Carolina has kept doing what it does. So what if the Tar Heels have turned the ball over 719 times? They've forced 914 turnovers.
"We continually talk about that our objective is the beauty of the game: five players out there playing as one," Hatchell said.
OK, it's impossible to let that line slide by. Because over the years, you probably can not pick another top program besides Carolina that has so often had five players out there playing as five players. But the beauty of Hatchell and the Tar Heels is their reality is completely undented by anybody else's perception.
Further, how can you argue with the Tar Heels' results? Since the start of the 2005-06 season, nobody outside of the ACC has beaten them. And it can't have escaped Carolina's notice that there are no other ACC teams left in this tournament.
Last year in the Cleveland Regional final, North Carolina beat Tennessee 75-63. That game was closer than the final score. But December's game wasn't.
"They really took us out of what we wanted to do in a lot of situations, and we just rushed shots," Summitt said of the game in Chapel Hill. "And that was the big difference in the game: our inability to have the composure against their defense at that time of the year to really execute."
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OK, nothing against all this defense stuff, but we can hope that those two have one of those high-octane dramas where everybody is hitting shots.
"We have great games with Tennessee," Hatchell said. "We both have great athletes, play good defense, and go up and down the floor. When we play them, it's just a great game. And I'm hoping we can have that kind of game on Sunday."
We're right there hoping that with you, Coach. After seeing snoozers in three of the four regional finals, something with both Tennessee and North Carolina in the 80s would really be a blast.
As for LSU-Rutgers, both might get to the 80s -- if they play six overtimes.
OK, it's not that bad. LSU is averaging 66.8 points, Rutgers 65.1. But it's also true that women's hoops fans could see almost any Rutgers final score during the season -- maybe even 22-17 -- and say, "Well, of course. It's Rutgers."
The orange spherical thing just might not pass through the rim an excessive amount when LSU faces Rutgers, a matchup that guarantees a first-time NCAA Tournament finalist. LSU has made the Final Four the previous three years but went out in the semifinals each time. Rutgers lost in the semis to Tennessee in the Scarlet Knights' previous Final Four trip.
LSU has the "eraser" in 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles. Meaning if one of her teammates makes a defensive mistake -- and they really don't make very many -- Fowles is there to erase it.
Rutgers has the C. Vivian Stringer formula: make everything an opponent tries to do offensively a gigantic pain in the neck. Actually, there is a lot more precision than that to Stringer's defense, but don't ask me to explain it.
After the Scarlet Knights' 53-52 upset victory over Duke in the Sweet 16, Stringer gave one of her legendary stream-of-consciousness press conferences in which she talked about defense and destiny and well a lot of other things.
Her full-court press is called the 55 defense, so Stringer told of how often the numbers 5 or 55 (or combinations that add up to 5 or 55) kept coming up in her life. There was something about a coin, and stuff about how in life we're always moving forward or backward, and there's no black or white, just gray no, wait a second, it was that there's only black and white, not gray or maybe the coin was gray? Was the coin moving forward or backward? At times, Stringer might have been translating Latin or describing Peru's economy, for all that we could follow.
She was just that out-of-this-world giddy about her young team's performance -- she has no seniors -- and it all started with defense.
"Vivian's teams always, always bring the pressure on the defensive end," Summitt said of Stringer, who is coaching in the Final Four for the fourth time. "I'm really proud for Vivian. You know, she has a young basketball team, but she's got them believing in each other. And just their toughness and never-quit attitude I thought that was apparent throughout the tournament."
Rutgers junior guard Matee Ajavon, who started the season sidelined with a stress fracture, returned to game action Dec. 4 against Duke. She was not much more than a shadow of herself then, at least defensively, and Rutgers lost by 40 points.
Ajavon said the hardest part for her was getting back into the kind of shape she needed to be in to play defense at the level Stringer expects. She estimated at the Greensboro Regional that she was about at 90 percent although Duke and Arizona State would probably say, "Good Lord, you mean she can play better?"
Of course, Rutgers hopes that Fowles might not be quite the intimidating force she was against UConn in the Fresno Regional final. In that game, Fowles played as if she were about 7-6, but still just as quick and coordinated.
There was no better evidence for how hard LSU is to face than the fact that UConn's 50 points qualified as an "explosion" of offense compared to what previous LSU foes did in the NCAA Tournament. LSU is also the proud owner of perhaps the grossest score this season for any of the Final Four teams, 70-27 over Alabama.
It's one thing for the big-dog teams to beat Toaster Strudel State 175-12 in some of those early-December "classic" tournaments schools host. But when you're holding a fellow SEC school -- even one that's struggling -- to 27 points, you are shuttin' it down.
And we can expect to see a lot of that from all four parties Sunday.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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