X factors for the Lady Vols, Scarlet Knights
How were Sunday's semifinals decided? Who came up big?
A look at how our experts answered those questions after Rutgers and Tennessee clinched spots in Tuesday's title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET):
The X factor for Rutgers was the play of freshman Rashidat Junaid. When Kia Vaughn picked up her second foul with 11 minutes to play in the first half, it threatened to unravel the marvelous defensive job the Scarlet Knights had done against Sylvia Fowles -- especially the work Vaughn had done to keep Fowles off the boards.
Instead, Junaid stood her ground against Fowles, using her size to stay behind her and set up the double-teams coming down from the wings that bothered LSU's star all night. With Fowles out of the mix, the Lady Tigers had no answer when Matee Ajavon and Essence Carson started knocking down outside shots to extend the lead to 18 points at halftime.
In Sunday's second semifinal, North Carolina might argue that the circumstances which made foul trouble an issue to begin with proved to be the real X factor in Tennessee's win, but bench play also played a significant role in determining the outcome.
In a game that was as much about survival as sublime execution, the Lady Vols suffered less when forced to call on their reserves. Alex Fuller, Dominique Redding and Alberta Auguste combined for six points and just three turnovers in 31 minutes. On the other side, the Tar Heels suffered from the nine turnovers committed by Alex Miller and Jessica Breland in 48 minutes.
Should Miller and Breland have needed to play that many minutes in relief of foul-plagued starters LaToya Pringle and Camille Little? That's a subject fans in Chapel Hill and Knoxville can debate for decades. The reality is they did, and the results hurt the Tar Heels.
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. At halftime, the Lady Vols had just six points off turnovers, but they finished with 22.
In the final eight minutes, Tennessee converted five steals into eight points and hit six free throws while UNC committed eight turnovers. More ...
The first semifinal really was decided in the first half. And luckily for Rutgers it was able to build an 18-point halftime lead, because the Scarlet Knights shot just 33 percent in the second half after hitting 43 percent of their field-goal attempts before the break.
When the game opened, it appeared LSU was willing to sag off and leave the perimeter open in order to take away Rutgers' penetration, specifically on stopping the dribble drive of the Scarlet Knights' Matee Ajavon, Epiphanny Prince and Essence Carson. But the gamble didn't pay off. Rutgers, which came in averaging 4.9 3-pointers per game, hit 8-of-10 first-half 3-pointers, including two from Carson and a 4-for-4 effort from Ajavon. Rutgers finished 10-for-20 from long-range, hitting just two more in the second half, but the damage was already done.
When the season opened back in November, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said this was the worst defensive team in her tenure at the school, but the defense got the job done Sunday. From the start, the Scarlet Knights perplexed LSU, constantly throwing different defenses at the Lady Tigers and really committing to shutting down LSU star Sylvia Fowles, who mustered just two points and five field-goal attempts in the first half. More
Scarlet Knights guard Epiphanny Prince had a terrific game all around: seven points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and just one turnover in 39 minutes. That's a big-time performance for a freshman.
In the second semifinal, Alexis Hornbuckle came alive at a critical time -- when Tennessee started its comeback. She didn't shoot well from the field (4-for-16), but nobody did. What she did well was play defense and rebound. Her nine points, eight rebounds and five steals were crucial.