Commentary

Lady Vols get defensive to defend NCAA title

Originally Published: March 25, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A sloppy opener behind it, Tennessee got down to the business of defending its national championship Tuesday night against Purdue.

And for Pat Summitt, who collected the 100th NCAA tournament win of her career with the 78-52 victory, that task is less a cliché than a game plan.

"I'm very proud of our basketball team and how they came in and committed to playing great defense," Summitt said. "I told them after the game we had about 30 minutes of the best defense we've played all season."

That defense forced 24 turnovers against 12 assists, including 15 first-half turnovers, and limited the ninth-seeded Boilermakers to 37 percent shooting and 10 offensive rebounds.

Top-seeded Tennessee gave up 34 points on 57 percent shooting in the first half of its first-round game against 16th-seeded Oral Roberts, a team that went 10-8 in the lightly regarded Summit League and lost its best player to an injury in the first minute of Sunday's game.

So when Purdue's Lakisha Freeman hit a baseline jumper with just more than a minute to play in the first half of Tuesday's game and brought the black-and-gold portion of the crowd inside Mackey Arena to its feet, you might have thought history was repeating itself.

Except Freeman's basket brought the score to 37-20 in favor of the team from Knoxville, Tenn.

In a building that has a national championship banner on the wall, it's difficult to imagine too many other standing ovations have greeted the Boilermakers upon their reaching 20 points after playing 19 minutes. Or that this one, however short its shelf life, was well earned by a team that appeared headed for a single-digit total for most of the opening stanza.

Not that Summitt shared the compassion; she called a timeout after Freeman's bucket.

"I firmly believe if you want to survive and advance and have a chance to win a championship, that you have to bring your defense and your board play every night," Summitt said the day before the game. "We've had some really ugly outings on offense in the postseason. Even in our championship game last year, it was an ugly win -- but much better than a pretty loss. And sometimes that comes at this time of the year. The pressure is much greater, the defense is much better, so we understand we may not shoot the basketball as well."

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
AP Photo/Michael ConroyTennessee's win over Purdue on Tuesday marked Pat Summitt's 100th career NCAA tournament victory. The Lady Vols have reached every Sweet 16.

Entering the NCAA tournament, Tennessee's opponents had averaged 9.9 points per game fewer against Summitt's team than overall on the season. For the Lady Vols, that represented good but not great defense -- Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Texas A&M were among those that fared better. And as Summitt herself mentions in a commercial now in mass circulation, there are a lot of good teams but not many great teams.

For the second game in a row, Alexis Hornbuckle took control from the outset, finishing two steals and two rebounds shy of a triple-double with 14 points, eight rebounds and eight steals. The difference this time was she had point guard Shannon Bobbitt along with her at full throttle. As much as anything else, Hornbuckle and Bobbitt at their best play like half of a great football secondary. In this game, that meant Bobbitt sticking with Purdue point guard FahKara Malone like a shutdown corner while Hornbuckle roamed the passing lanes and delivered big baskets like a free safety in the middle of the field.

"Those two have the capabilities of giving a lot of people trouble," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "And when they're picking the ball up, especially working in tandem -- it's one thing if you have a great point guard who can pressure, but if she can make an easy pass to a player who is not getting the same type of pressure, all of a sudden it's like a lever is pulled and the pressure is off. … When those two are in somebody's face and they're really pressuring and getting people to turn, eventually it's hard to run an offense, it's hard to get into your sets."

So does this year's defense have the potential to be as good as last year's title unit?

"That's a hard question," Nicky Anosike said. "I think last year we were so good because we were experienced. We had no freshmen on the team, so everyone was pretty much mature. I think that was really what got us to the championship last year. This year, I feel like if we do play our best defense, I don't know if we'd be better than last year's team."

With five seniors in the starting lineup, including four who started in the championship game against Rutgers last season, Tennessee looks like -- and is -- an experienced team. But as Anosike alluded to, it's not the same team that won in Cleveland. Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding are gone; Alberta Auguste is playing significantly more minutes; and freshmen Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh are in the mix off the bench.

Purdue didn't convert many field goals until a brief second-half spark, but Hornbuckle was spotted more than once pulling a player such as Bjorklund or Baugh aside for one-on-one consultation after a breakdown in the otherwise impenetrable pressure.

[+] EnlargeShannon Bobbitt
AP Photo/Michael ConroyShannon Bobbitt's defense helped hold Purdue point guard FahKara Malone to six points.

"I think everybody's roles have kind of changed and evolved -- not really changed, just evolved a little bit," Hornbuckle explained. "Even the freshmen, we kind of let them get away with not talking so much, not being so verbal, but now it's crucial."

Baugh, in particular, offers an intriguing option off the bench if the minutes she played in two blowout wins in West Lafayette are any indication. In what likely would have been just her second set of back-to-back games with at least 20 minutes -- had she not fouled out with about eight minutes to play -- she scored 12 points and added five rebounds and a block. Despite averaging just 13.5 minutes this season, the freshman is fourth on the team in blocked shots, and she averaged 12.1 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Whether at the point of the press the Lady Vols used to torment the Boilermakers throughout the first half, guarding the back line to allow Hornbuckle and Bobbitt to pressure the ball without reservations, or finishing chances on offense, Baugh showed the potential insurance she can provide behind Anosike.

"Vicki came off the bench and did a super job," Summitt said. "She was instrumental in us winning at the SEC championship against LSU, when she came off the bench and just really did a terrific job at both ends of the floor. And I thought she was very, very active tonight, and obviously very efficient offensively. We need that. That's something that really helps us as far as our inside presence. … She's very active defensively."

But even with the defense clicking and new pieces of the puzzle stepping up, talk of a repeat championship will take a backseat to what's up next in Oklahoma City.

"I think it was really important to our success, and very vital to our success to take it one game at time," Hornbuckle said. "[Last year,] everybody was looking ahead in our bracket like, 'Man, our bracket is stacked and we could potentially face this team and this team.'

But what happened is all those other teams were looking ahead, as well, so they looked past a team such as Marist, who was able to upset [Ohio State], such as Ole Miss in Oklahoma's eyes. But we really took it one game at a time, because at any point in time, on any given night, any team can win. So we don't want to let fate play a factor. We want skills and practice and preparation to play a factor in our games."

And if the Lady Vols sound a little defensive when asked to look ahead, that's just how their coach likes it.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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