Commentary

Defense helps Tennessee successfully defend title

Updated: April 9, 2008, 2:32 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- For a team with a star possessing a unique skill set, a player many expect will revolutionize women's basketball, Tennessee certainly has a way of making scoreboards look like historical markers to a bygone era of peach baskets and set shots.

Tuesday night, the Lady Vols held an opponent to fewer than 50 points for the second time in three days and the third time in the last three rounds of the NCAA tournament. The result of the stinginess in an orange-hued arena reverberating with the sounds of "Rocky Top" was a 64-48 win over Stanford and a second consecutive national championship.

And if Pat Summitt's team showed its defensive pedigree in pulling out wins against Texas A&M and LSU, two defensive stalwarts with occasionally suspect shooting, it cemented its place as one of the all-time best defensive teams against Stanford. Two of the Cardinal's first five opponents in the tournament hadn't managed to keep Candice Wiggins from scoring 40 points, let alone stop her team from scoring at a prolific pace.

Against Tennessee, Stanford finished with 19 field goals and committed 25 turnovers. It was the team's lowest scoring output since 2003 and its most turnovers since 2005.

"I think their pressure and their aggressiveness, the number of turnovers that we had, really took us out of everything we were trying to do," coach Tara VanDerveer said.

The result was a performance that made it easy to ignore the fact that Tennessee won a title despite totaling 12 assists and shooting 34 percent in two Final Four games. The champs became the first team to hold both Final Four opponents to fewer than 50 points, with the 94-point tally besting the 96 points most of these players allowed in two games last year.

[+] EnlargeNicky Anosike
David Butler II/US PresswireNicky Anosike made six of Tennessee's 13 steals Tuesday and added eight rebounds.

"Obviously we did a great job [defensively], but I have always said that you can't always have your way offensively," Summitt said. "Sometimes the shots do not fall. And you can always control how hard you worked on defense and how passionate you are about rebounding. … Our defensive intensity was tremendous. That's because they believe in our system. I love offense, but there's a lot of nights I don't like what I see. And if we're not scoring and not making shots, how you going to win?"

For all the talk of Parker as a game-changing offensive talent capable of playing every position -- which she is -- Tennessee might have had her equal on the defensive end. And if the first five rounds of the tournament were a chance for the majority of fans to catch up with the all-too-hidden gem that was Candice Wiggins, Tuesday's final was an opportunity to savor the defensive wizardry of oft-overlooked Nicky Anosike.

Throughout her career, Anosike has guarded every position on the court, trading body blows with some of the nation's biggest posts and shuffling her feet to stay with its quickest guards. She was never better than against Stanford, helping stymie Jayne Appel on the block and harassing Wiggins, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and JJ Hones into 14 combined turnovers as the forward presence in Tennessee's backcourt pressure.

"She's unbelievable," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "Last year, we had her guard point guards, wing players and post players. This year, she didn't do it as much throughout the tournament, but her versatility gives us so many options. And she's got great mobility; that kid can move left, right, and she can cover ground. She's very deceptive. She's not Shannon [Bobbitt]-type quick, but her angles are so good and she anticipates so well. And plus, she's just got this tough nastiness to her. You combine those qualities, and you've got a pretty good defender."

And even if she was the best one Tuesday, she wasn't the only one.

Bobbitt's early 3-pointers helped establish Tennessee's lead, much as her key shots from behind the arc in the second half of last year's final helped seal the deal against Rutgers. But her defense was perhaps more valuable than her 4-of-12 shooting on this night. With Tennessee facing a veritable point guard crisis two years ago after Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood's decision to transfer, Summitt made a rare decision to mine the junior-college ranks for help. After watching 5-foot-2 Bobbitt split traps sprung by football players in pickup games, the coaches were sold.

"I thought a huge, huge thing was Shannon Bobbitt," Lockwood said. "We call her the missing piece. She was the missing piece from two years ago, and she has been just tremendous."

[+] EnlargeAlberta Auguste
AP Photo/Amy SancettaAlberta Auguste helped limit Stanford's Candice Wiggins to just 14 points on 6-for-16 shooting.

With Anosike, Bobbitt and senior Alexis Hornbuckle forcing turnover after turnover by Stanford's guards, VanDerveer had to play reserve forward Jillian Harmon alongside posts Appel and Kayla Pedersen for much of the game just to give the Cardinal some hope of a firewall on the back line. For a team that picked apart its previous opponents with passing and open looks, it was an inescapable downward spiral of reacting instead of dictating.

"I think our defense takes a lot of people out of their sets when we decide to play," Anosike said. "And tonight, we had no choice but to decide to play defense. So we took them out of everything they wanted to do, and they just didn't know what to do against our defense."

To some degree, these Tennessee teams will always be referenced in relation to Parker. She is the star who brought the championship banners back to Knoxville and surely added a chapter to her lore by playing through pain with an injured shoulder in the Final Four. But in its own way, her injury and the offensive struggles that followed for the team also served to put a spotlight on the end of the court where Parker was just one among five, doing her part Tuesday with four steals and a block.

These will always be Parker's Lady Vols, but each and every one of them also will be part of one of the best defensive teams ever to play college basketball. That's how a group with so much potential matured into two-time national champions.

"Just team defense," Hornbuckle said of Summitt's influence on this group. "It's easy to kind of develop your skills as far as a one-on-one defender, but when you can get five people on the court playing team defense -- getting to the help line, ready to rotate, just knowing if you get beat, you have somebody there to alter a shot or take a charge. I think we've grown in that matter, as far as trusting one another."

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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