Commentary

LSU's defense takes out Tar Heels en route to Tampa

Updated: April 1, 2008, 11:33 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- They danced at half court of the New Orleans Arena when it was over. The LSU players were celebrating the program's fifth consecutive Final Four, and Sylvia Fowles is headed back home to Florida for this one.

LSU beat North Carolina 56-50 … which eerily is the exact same score as last year's loss by the Tar Heels to Tennessee in the national semifinals.

UNC was trying to make its third trip in a row to the Final Four and was leading the nation in scoring at 87.3 points per game. But the Tar Heels' offense was stagnant, and afterward they said they weren't sure why.

Well, I think I have a pretty good idea -- LSU's defense was terrific as usual. Sometimes it's very hard for teams who get shut down to realize there was a reason for why it happened -- and it really wasn't because they screwed up.

LSU came into this game holding foes to an average of 50.1 points per game. So what happened to most other teams this season against LSU happened to UNC, too.

Afterward, LSU coach Van Chancellor said he felt about 40 years younger than his actual age of 64. As opposed to the way he felt in 1986 -- a couple of "eras" ago in women's hoops -- when his Ole Miss team gave eventual national champion Texas its most competitive game in that NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight.

Chancellor recited the score -- 66-63 -- off the top of his head in Sunday's news conference before this final. That loss stung a long, long time. But he also said if he didn't go to a Final Four, it would be OK. His career wasn't going to be defined by it. Still…

Deep down, you know he would have agonized a lot over this game had LSU not been able to win. With five senior starters -- including one of the best centers in the history of the college game in Fowles -- and with a regional here in the Big Easy, 90 miles from campus, LSU had a lot in its favor.

[+] EnlargeSylvia Fowles
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireNew Orleans' Most Outstanding Player, Sylvia Fowles, had 21 points and 12 rebounds for her SEC-record 85th career double-double.

"I am thrilled to death, first of all, to not be recognized as the only coach who could not get LSU to the Final Four," Chancellor said. "For these kids, for what all they've gone through … I am really pleased for them.

"We did it the old-fashioned way, the way my teams have found a way to win in the past. We didn't shoot it great, but we gave up 50 points to the greatest offensive team in this country right now. I'm really proud for our team. And it's such a thrill for me personally to go to the Final Four. Since April 11 (when he was hired last year) we've had so much fun. I just thought the one thing we would need would be a trip to the Final Four for them and for me. I am thoroughly enjoying it. I don't intend to sleep a wink tonight."

Of course a year ago at this time, LSU was defying what appeared to be heavy odds against making the Final Four. After all, it was a program that went through losing its coach, Pokey Chatman, under difficult circumstances after the SEC tournament.

LSU guard Erica White said it was a relief this year just to be able to talk about basketball -- not be asked about Chatman's personal life issues, or how the players were dealing with her absence, or how they could concentrate through those kinds of distractions.

So far this NCAA tournament, it has just been about playing hard and listening to Chancellor's wisecracks in news conferences. And White and her teammates definitely enjoy that. When asked about how they felt when LSU officials picked Chancellor last spring, Fowles said, "They didn't pick him. We did."

White said, "I don't think there was a better fit for this job. From day one, with him having so much success behind him with the championships in the WNBA and USA Basketball, you had to respect him.

[+] EnlargeVan Chancellor
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltVan Chancellor came up short in four Elite Eight trips in 19 years at Ole Miss, but he finally has a Final Four to go with four WNBA titles and an Olympic gold medal.

"Coming in, he was such a great person and fun guy to be around. That was the best thing for us."

To which Chancellor cracked, "You might get to start next game, Point Guard."

That's what he calls White -- and the way he says it, it sounds like a proper name, so we use upper-case letters -- and she was certainly a huge part of the reason that LSU is going to Tampa. White scored 18 points in a personal battle with Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley in the semifinals, and then Monday, she had eight points and eight rebounds.

Note that last number, especially, against a team that rebounds like the Tar Heels. White is just 5 feet, 3 inches, but she crashed the boards just the same.

And Fowles was the anchor, as she has been her entire career at LSU, with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Quianna Chaney's 13 points were big, too, and Chancellor couldn't let the night pass without teasing her about her defense.

"We just want her to shoot," he said.

Chancellor rightfully wants to enjoy this … but the next question is, can he help LSU get further than before? In the previous Final Four trips, something has always gone wrong -- or, sometimes, several things -- for LSU.

"My whole thought process is [that] when I came here, I said, 'Let's win a national championship,'" he said. "We've been talking about that. I said I wasn't going to let them tear the nets down [at the regional final], but I changed my mind. I decided it was a great thrill for kids, and I wanted to do it, personally. [But] we're going for a championship."

Chancellor thanked assistant coach Bob Starkey, who stepped in to lead the team last year after Chatman's departure, and the LSU administration for bringing him on board.

"Thank goodness you hired me," he said. "Because I would have missed out on one of the greatest thrills of my life."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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