Guard play, Diggins to determine champ
Texas A&M's Sydney Carter discusses guarding left-handed Skylar Diggins in Tuesday's national championship game.
INDIANAPOLIS -- For just the second time in women's NCAA tournament history, the championship game will be played without a No. 1 seed, but after Sunday night no one should question that Notre Dame and Texas A&M deserve to be there. It's a game between teams that play quite differently but advanced in similar fashion. Each had to beat a team that it had lost to three times already this season, and because of those losses the Aggies and Irish were each conference runners-up in the regular season and in their league tournaments. Neither squad has allowed an opponent to score 70 points in the tournament. And Texas A&M and Notre Dame knocked off a No. 1 seed in each the last two games they played. A closer look at Tuesday's title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET; coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET):
The overall offensive numbers for Texas A&M look good, but the truth is, against their better opponents, the Aggies have actually struggled to score. The team is winning with defense. Whatever associate head coach Vic Schaefer has drawn up, specifically against two very different teams in Baylor and Stanford, the Aggies have executed on the defensive end.
It all starts with guards Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter, who simply make opposing backcourts uncomfortable. It's like a football team with a good, consistent pass rush: The quarterback never has time and everything about the offense is just a little off. The Sydneys are the "Purple People Eaters" or "Steel Curtain" of women's college basketball. And it's why the Aggies have been able to impose their will and their style on the game, rather than adjusting to what the opposition does. All five of the Aggies' tournament games have been played their way. Texas A&M's aggressive nature gets under the opponent's skin and stays there.
Notre Dame has played some tremendous defense, too. No team has yet to get to 65 points against the Irish in the tournament. Sunday, they held the most accurate shooting team in the country, Connecticut, to just 42.4 percent shooting. However, Notre Dame reached its first title game since 2001 because it can execute on offense as well as anyone. The Irish just became the first of 263 teams to make more than half its shots in a game against UConn. They are smart, unselfish and aggressive, but more than that the Irish players trust one another and are playing with supreme confidence. That's why Notre Dame gets to the basket and finishes.
As freshman Natalie Achonwa tells point guard Skylar Diggins, just put the ball in the hoop; that's how you win. Pretty wise for a freshman. And that is exactly how Notre Dame does it.
This should make for a tremendous matchup. Sunday, A&M made an efficient Stanford offense look ragged, while Notre Dame made UConn's typically stingy defense look ordinary. Tuesday will be another contest in contrasts, and whichever team can put its stamp on the game first will have a big advantage.
Point guards. Just like in their national semifinal against Stanford, how well Carter and Colson match up with the opposition's point guard will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. Each took turns harassing Jeanette Pohlen, and they were each effective, as Stanford's first-team All-American was never comfortable. That's their game. The Sydneys want to make the other team uneasy, and they are good at it. To what degree they are able to do that to Diggins will determine which team's personality defines the championship game. Whoever wins that style tug-of-war wins the game. And it all begins in the backcourt, where Notre Dame's best player contends with Texas A&M's two most important.
As game-defining as Carter and Colson are, Tyra White's fantastic outing against Stanford was monumental. She made the two most important shots in the history of Texas A&M women's basketball: One layup gave the Aggies a lead with 19 seconds left; the other was a game-winner with 3.3 seconds remaining. She was solid all night with 18 points and no turnovers. It was exactly the lift Texas A&M needed from its second-leading scorer because Carter wasn't shooting well and Colson wasn't looking to the basket, period.
White will need to slice her way to the rim and make midrange jump shots again if her backcourt-mates continue to struggle to score. Carter carried the team against Baylor, so she's capable of being better than her 5-for-19 shooting against UConn. Still, with the Sydneys, it's not necessarily about how much they score. Often their ability to establish energy and the game's tempo is most important. They accomplished that in stretches in all three losses to Baylor but carried it out for a full 40 minutes in the regional final to finally beat the Lady Bears. The same happened Sunday night. The points they score are sometimes secondary to their ability to stamp their personalities on a game -- Sunday's upset being the perfect example.
Diggins presents a new challenge, though. She's more athletic, quicker and stronger with the ball than Stanford's Pohlen. And it so happens that Diggins also seems to be making every proper decision with the basketball these days. She's going to the basket at exactly the right moment. She knows when to pull up for a jumper. She isn't taking bad or forced 3-pointers. She's finding teammates at the precise time. Diggins' breakout from top recruit and young player into star has happened in this tournament. Always solid inside the arc, Diggins is now outstanding in that area, and perhaps no player in the college game uses screens and the angles she creates better than the South Bend native. Now she's even making her 3-point attempts, unlike any other time in her two seasons.
Outside of Maya Moore in the national semifinals, Diggins has been the best player on the court every second she has been on it. That reason alone would give Notre Dame the advantage here. But Diggins has plenty of help, too. Natalie Novosel is Notre Dame's leading scorer and showed why in the second half against UConn. Her relentlessness in driving the ball into the lane might have been the night's most important factor. She's also a more than capable 3-point shooter (41.1 percent), which is the one area the Irish have been extremely efficient as a team in the tournament. They haven't taken many but went 9-for-18, 5-for-11 and 4-for-8, respectively (18-for-37 total, or 48.6 percent), in the last three games. Brittany Mallory was a huge part of that against Oklahoma, but her first priority is still defense. Advantage: Notre Dame.
One thing Texas A&M couldn't do was stop Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike. Notre Dame does not have that kind of interior threat.
Instead, the Irish have grinders up front. Becca Bruszewksi revels in her nickname, "Bruiser." Devereaux Peters has been through multiple knee surgeries (she twice tore the ACL in her left knee in a 10-month span in 2008). Achonwa is the Irish's tallest player at 6 feet, 4 inches. There is no "wow factor" to them, but they set the screens that free the guards and work tirelessly on the glass. Peters, who's 6-2, is the best athlete of the group and has the ability to break out occasionally on offense, but Notre Dame won't rely on that. Achonwa has a bright future. The Irish will need her even more as a physical presence off the bench on Tuesday night. Much of what 6-1 Bruszewski provides won't show up on a stat sheet. She's the team's heart and soul, its leader. But all of Notre Dame's frontcourt players will have to contend with a Texas A&M frontline that is bigger (in the case of 6-1 Danielle Adams and 6-5 Karla Gilbert) and more athletic (Adaora Elonu).
Adams is the key here. The intense pace and feel to Sunday's game against Stanford was its key element, but it also wore down Adams a bit. She looked tired and out of sorts for most of the first half on Sunday. The body language was not good. When the game slowed just a whisker after halftime, Adams acclimated better and was solid. She won't have the type of athleticism Stanford presented to contend with against Notre Dame, so her wide body and positioning down low might be better used, which means her skills as an offensive player can have more of an impact.
Gilbert's 6-5 frame was supposed to play a role in neutralizing Stanford's size. It didn't. She played just five minutes. Alonu, like she has been most of the season, played a quietly effective game Sunday. She only scored four points but grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and defended. Kayla Pedersen and Chiney Ogwumike combined for just two offensive rebounds. Alonu had something to do with that. Adams as a scorer gives the Aggies a slight edge here, but Notre Dame's trio knows how to finish plays. If one, especially Peters, gets some early looks, the advantage could flip. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Much of Texas A&M's game is about intangibles. Effort, heart and refusing to give in can't be measured, but those are the reasons the Aggies are here. Notre Dame has many of those same qualities. Mallory and Peters have overcome major injuries to get to this point. Bruszewski has been beat up in this tournament. Not finishing the job doesn't seem like an option for either team. Gary Blair and Muffet McGraw can strategize and know how to inspire. The emotions are a wash. So are the smarts. No one wins this one. Advantage: Even.
Guard play. What Carter and Colson have done to lift Texas A&M and how spectacular Diggins has been are well-chronicled here and will be in numerous other stories, blogs and commentary before tip time on Tuesday. But the game could also be won on whether Novosel or White has the better night. Each was huge on Sunday. Each has been a huge offensive component to her team throughout the season. If the Sydneys slow down Diggins, Notre Dame will need that same Novosel aggressiveness. If Diggins does win that battle, A&M will have to score more. The Aggies can't do that without White.
Notre Dame. The Irish's ability to attack the rim from the perimeter will neutralize A&M's pressure and chaos-type defense. The Aggies' frantic style has intimidated their last two opponents. Notre Dame plays differently than Baylor or Stanford and shouldn't fall prey. Texas A&M showed a vulnerability around the basket when Stanford got the ball inside. Notre Dame can do that in different ways. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma called the Irish difficult to play against for that very reason. No doubt Texas A&M's Schaefer will come up with something different, but Diggins has played at a higher level than anyone else in this tournament (other than Moore). When in doubt, in another game that should be closely contested throughout, go with the most talent. That makes Diggins the difference.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.