Mechelle Voepel, Graham Hays and Charlie Creme take a look at the key players, difference-makers and X-factors behind Texas A&M's 76-70 win over Notre Dame on Tuesday in the national championship game.
Texas A&M knocked off back-to-back No. 1 seeds en route to the championship game without getting stellar performances from Danielle Adams against either Baylor or Stanford, at least by the standards previously established by the All-American. But the Aggies won their first chamapionship because their best player came up big in her final game. On a stage where so many seniors who defined the sport have been met recently with disappointment, including Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel and Angel McCoughtry in the past five years alone, Adams rose to the occasion.
But more than simply being clutch in scoring 30 points, including 22 in the second half, she almost single-handedly killed off Notre Dame's momentum by devoting herself to the low post. As good as Notre Dame was all season, it didn't have to face a proven low-post threat of anything close to All-American caliber in the tournament (aided by potential future All-American Stefanie Dolson's foul trouble in the semifinals). And while both athletic and tough with Becca Bruszewski, Devereaux Peters and Natalie Achonwa, the Fighting Irish were not especially big -- especially with Achonwa in foul trouble all night off the bench before fouling out in the second half.
Largely giving up on the 3-point shots and mid-range jumpers she hit with regularity during the regular season, Adams owned the block and gave Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter two big numbers to throw the ball to in erasing a seven-point deficit with as little as 16:06 remaining on the clock. Few things are more demoralizing for a defense than watching an unstoppable post presence go to work, and Adams was just that Tuesday night.
Without going back over all the replays (a benefit the officials, of course, are not afforded in real time), it's difficult to cast any judgment on the substance of all the fouls. (Oh what the heck, there were some truly awful calls, including the fourth foul on Texas A&M's Carter to set up a three-point play opportunity for Skylar Diggins with under four minutes to play.) But what can't be argued is that the abundant whistles added a layer of complexity for both teams. Just about every key player had three or more fouls down the stretch. But Colson's ability to stay on the court for the entire second half after picking up three first-half fouls enabled the Aggies to get the ball to Adams and keep the game from slipping away against Notre Dame's toughness and big shots from Diggins.
Junior forward Tyra White ended up being the X-factor for Texas A&M this entire NCAA tournament. She is a versatile defender who was able to guard both interior players and guards, an important key for the Aggies' defense. White had 18 points in both the national semifinal victory against Stanford -- when she hit the winning basket -- and scored 18 again in the championship game against Notre Dame. Her 3-pointer with 1:07 left Tuesday against the Irish to beat the shot-clock buzzer was the basket of the game, giving Texas A&M a five-point lead.
In a wildly intense, back-and-forth game, Texas A&M just made more clutch plays. That will be the theme of the Final Four for the Aggies. It was the same way in the semifinals against Stanford. When a basket needed to be made, Texas A&M delivered. Tyra White did the honors in both games, hitting huge shots in huge moments. She also knocked the ball away from Skylar Diggins with 19 seconds left as the Notre Dame point guard was trying to get off a 3-pointer and re-establish a one possession game. Instead, White grabbed the ball and chipped in two free throws at the other end -- the final nail in the coffin for the Irish.
The Aggies missed only seven shots in the final 20 minutes and even that was just barely enough to beat Notre Dame, which wouldn't go away. The ultimate individual difference was Danielle Adams. Without a truly long defender on Notre Dame, Adams had more freedom on the low block. When her teammates made a better effort to look for her in the second half, she dominated.