Thursday, July 29, 2010

Checking in on the 2010 Women's NCAA Tourney Sweet Sixteen

From True/Slant on March 27, 2010:

Women’s Sweet 16 Tips Today. Who Invited All These Mid-Majors?

The women’s Sweet 16 is set to start today with an unexpectedly diverse field — even with all four No. 1 seeds advancing, there are lots of gate crashers. Only the Kansas City Region has gone according to form and certainly nobody expected to see two mid-majors advance this far, as well as seeing mighty Ohio State and Jantel Lavender go down in the second round.

Down go the Buckeyes.

On Tuesday night at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, I parked myself courtside, expecting to see live and in person the Jantel Lavender show. Instead, I witnessed the emergence of rising star Alexis Rack and a Mississippi State Bulldog team that plays some of the best defense outside of Storrs, Connecticut.

Some background. Lavender is likely an All-American. She is huge. She’s 6′ 4″ (which, I would point out to give it perspective, is as tall as Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.) And she’s solid. No wonder that she led her team in scoring, in shots attempted, in fouls drawn, in rebounds, and in shot blocks. In short, despite considerable contributions from point guard Samantha Prahalis and sharp-shooting forward Sarah Schultze, every thing the Buckeyes do goes through Lavender.

Most of the game, it was Chanel Mokango’s job to neutralize Lavender. During warm ups, I thought there was no way Mokango could handle it, because while she has the height (she’s listed at 6′ 5″), she is ultra-lean. She looks like a model (back when models didn’t look like they were about two weeks away of dying from starvation.) But Mokango handled Lavender by being in the right spot just about every time the Buckeyes fed the ball to her. Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis and her staff clearly did a great job scouting the Ohio State team; Mokango and her teammates followed the road map to stifle and frustrate the inside game that the Buckeyes desperately wanted to establish.

Not to mention that Mokango has a sweet little mid-range jumper, which is totally unexpected from a player who didn’t pick up a basketball until she was 15 years old.

It was quite a performance. To start the game, Bulldogs found themselves quickly down. They never let the Buckeyes build an insurmountable lead and every time it looked like OSU was going to go on a run, the Bulldogs made a key bucket or a big rebound. Halfway through the first half, things started to turn. OSU’s shooters, who had hit everything in the opening minutes, went stone cold, there was a Bulldog player everywhere they looked, everywhere they tried to dribble, in every passing lane pass, challenging every shot. Every move was contested. The Bulldogs caused a dozen turnovers in the first half. And then a dozen more in the second. Truly, even though Alexis Rack put up 30 points, and Mississippi State had four players in double figures, the turnovers were the story of the game. Ohio State’s frustration was palpable.

Playing with four fouls late in the game, Prahalis was pinned along the baseline with the ball by one of the State guards (I think it was Diamber Johnson). She was so frustrated that she started chirping at the official just behind her, then just winged the ball right off Johnson’s knee. She was T’ed up and out of the game. I don’t mean to call out Prahalis, who plays with a lot of emotion, but it pretty much sums up the second half for the Buckeyes nicely.

The Mighty Zags.

The Gonzaga men’s team has become a staple of March Madness. When the boys of Spokane first started making noise, everybody was enamored of them, the little Jesuit college who could. But after a while, we got used to it. The men’s program is now considered to be like a mid-major plus-plus. It’s not a surprise to see them in the Sweet 16 anymore.

But the women? Last year, the Zags made the dance and lost in a close second round game to Pitt. This year, they were determined to make it past the second round and secure their first ever Sweet 16 bid.

I thought going into this game that the biggest challenge to A & M would be Courtney Vandersloot operating on the outside; and the biggest problem for the Zags would be Danielle Adams operating inside. I was kinda sorta right. Kinda.

If you had told me that at the end of the first half, Vandersloot would have six turnovers and be just one for five shooting from the field, I would have told you that the Aggies had a large lead. Although those stats were true, the story of the game was senior forward, Vivian Frieson.

Frieson dominated the game both inside and out. She carried her team. She rebounded at both ends of the floor, she blocked shots, she hit buckets when her team needed them most. Most of the first half, it was the Inside Vivian Frieson show. In the second half, with Vandersloot still discombobulated, Frieson moved outside and distributed the ball to her teammates, while Vandersloot ran the baseline, working for open looks.

Frieson did everything. She was a big physical presence, with the vision of a true point guard, and the shooting touch of a two guard. It was a tremendous singular performance and Frieson is the reason the Zags take on Xavier in the Sweet 16. Welcome to the dance ladies. Good to have you here.

San Diego State? Really?

The Mountaineers never got into any kind of offensive rhythm against the San Diego State Aztecs. The SDSU D was perhaps the most impressive defensive showing in a round chock full of jaw-dropping, lock-down performances.

Here’s an indication of just how dominant the SDSU defense was: On the night, West Virginia had just three assists in the entire game. Three! The only reason that the Mountaineers weren’t completely and totally routed was the individual efforts of both Sarah Miles and Liz Repella, even though Repella’s shooting touch just wasn’t there from the outside. That was just two talented, tough players gutting out points because there was no real offense to speak of.

Meanwhile, SDSU’s Jene Morris was locked and loaded. Every time Repella or Miles made something happen at the offensive end for WVU, Morris would answer for SDSU. In the last five minutes of the game, Morris had 12 points. Some people say there’s no such thing as “clutch,” that stats just bear out over time. Horse-patootey. Morris’ 12 points in these key moments secured the win just as much as the SDSU defense.

What does it all mean?

What do all these teams have in common? They all play stifling defense. They all use their defense to essentially lift them up on the offensive end. They believe that if they create turnovers, foment confusion, frustrate the other team, it will lead to good things.

I can think of another team that does that so well it carries them to national championships. It’s about time other teams started using UConn’s blueprint.

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