Cleveland Rocks! Women’s Final Four Preview 2007

Rutgers University vs. Louisiana State University
The last time these two teams met, it was in 2005 and Rutgers shocked the then-No. 1 Lady Tigers in overtime, 51-49. Considering both teams’ propensity for defense, this match-up could be equally low scoring.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is taking her Scarlet Knights to the program’s second Final Four (her fourth overall), but this one may be the most unlikely. On a team without any seniors and an overabundance of freshmen and sophomores, much of the leadership burden fell on junior “I’ll-play-any-position-you-need-me-to” guard Essence Carson. The team struggled early on, especially with executing Stringer’s famous “55” full-court pressure defense. But the mid-season return of Matee Ajavon from injury signaled the return of balance along with a battle-tested resilience that has served them well in the tournament.

The lightening-quick Ajavon, defensive specialist Carson and freshman-phenom Epiphanny Prince all average 12 points a game—not unusual for a program that revels in guard play. Ajavon has game-changing-ability range and moves, but what sets this Knights team apart from recent team is the emergence of a post scoring threat in the form of sophomore Kia Vaughn. Big, mobile and more vocal as the season’s progressed, Vaughn almost averages a double-double. At 6’4” she presents a formidable target both on offense (when her guards remember she is there) and defense. The challenge for the Knights will be fouls—if any of these four get in to trouble, the bench will be hard pressed to pick up the slack.

The LSU Lady Tigers are heading back to the NCAA tournament semifinals for the fourth year, and their match-up with Rutgers means one of these two programs will play for the national championship for the first time. All eyes should be on 6-foot-6 junior Sylvia Fowles, and deservedly so. With little media attention and less fanfare, Fowles has emerged as the most dominant center in women’s college basketball. She’s brought a fierceness to her game that intimidates the opposition but, while she’s displayed the strength of will to single-handedly carry LSU to victory, advancing to and winning a championship will rest on her guards’ ability to hit the outside shot. Much of that burden sits rather comfortably on junior guard Quianna Chaney’s shoulders, and recently RaShonta LeBlanc, Ashley Thomas and Allison Hightower seem to have caught three-point fever. Considering LSU led the nation in field-goal defense and forced 18.3 turnovers per game, a re-energized inside/outside game could spell big trouble for Rutgers.

North Carolina vs. Tennessee
Last March, a 12-point Tar Heels victory interrupted Tennessee’s fifth trip in a row to the Final Four. This past December it was North Carolina again, this time by 13. Add in the fact that coaches Sylvia Hatchell and Pat Summitt have been friends for decades and that, in Ivory Latta and Candace Parker, these teams feature two of college’s most demonstrative—and talented—players, and this post-season re-match is bound to be rife with emotion.

Senior Ivory Latta is the little engine that drives the North Carolina train. She wears her passion for the game on her sleeve, jersey, kneepads and anywhere else the (almost) 5’6” point guard can reach. Some may argue off-season surgery and recovery has hindered her play this year, but the real question is not her ability to feed the post or drain the three but whether she can contain her emotions and engage the rest of her teammates.

Senior Camille Little, junior Erlana Larkins and sophomore Rashanda McCants form an eclectic and talented battery of six-foot-plus posts that echo the 2002 UConn Husky trio of Swin Cash, Tamika Williams and Asijha Jones. Add in shot-blocker LaToya Pringle, a deep bench and up-tempo game, and the Tar Heels can harass opponents into turnovers, which they enthusiastically convert into points—which explains why they lead the nation in scoring and steals. When Latta takes advantage of these weapons, the Heels become a multi-headed hydra. When she doesn’t, she pulls the wheels off her own train.

Tennessee arrives in Cleveland with something it hasn’t had in a while: a true, pure point guard. A junior college transfer, 5’2” Shannon Bobbitt has successfully made the transition to Division I basketball and provided a nice compliment to Alexis Hornbuckle’s assists. Bobbitt, along with the 6’3” Sidney Spencer, provide the Lady Vols’ three-point threat. When Spencer, who has improved tremendously since her foul-prone freshman year, is hitting her outside shot, the floor opens up for Tennessee’s ridiculously versatile Parker. At 6’4”, Parker’s game is so diverse that Tennessee lists her as a guard-forward-center. Averaging almost 20 points a game (twice as much as the next leading scorer), she also leads the Vols in blocks (and dunks) and is second only to Hornbuckle in steals.

During the tournament she’s been playing as if hounded by the specters of past Lady Vols greats: Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, something the media scrutiny has only intensified. For all of Parker’s statistical accomplishments (and she’s only a sophomore), she believes only a championship will cement her place in the Vols pantheon. Her experience with USA Basketball can only help her deal with that self-imposed pressure, but, that being said, Tennessee has moved through the tournament relatively untested. It’s to be seen if her teammates can match her intensity and focus.

Numbers to ponder before the teams arrive in Cleveland:
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the 1972 signing of Title IX, the landmark legislation that signaled, amongst other things, the creation of college athletic scholarships for women (the first was offered by Miami in 1973).
Of the four coaches represented at this year’s Final Four, three—Sylvia Hatchell, Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer—played college ball before such scholarships existed.
Stringer started coaching before scholarships were offered (’71), Summitt and Hatchell just as they were becoming available (’74).
In the early years, coaches were sometimes limited to one or two scholarships per year. Now they have 15.
When calculating how far the game has come, consider that it’s not been quite two generations of women who’ve reaped the benefits of Title IX; The freshmen playing in the finals were born 17 years after it passed.
The first national championship for women was conducted in 1972 (AIAW).
Tennessee has won six national championships (NCAA: ’87, ’89, ’91, ’96, ’97, ’98).
North Carolina has won one national championship (NCAA: ’94).
Rutgers has won one national championship (AIAW – ’82).
LSU has yet to win a championship, but it is said no championship has been won by a coach over the age of 50. Of the four coaches going to Cleveland only Bob Starkey, who took over at LSU with Pokey Chatman’s resignation, meets that criteria.

Will it be Tigers, Tar Heels, Knights or Volunteers who rule in Ohio? The only thing that is certain is that next weekend, Cleveland will rock!

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