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ND Women’s Basketball Commentary: Tennessee’s support cast overwhelms ND

Bill Brink | Monday, March 31, 2008

OKLAHOMA CITY – Ever played tic-tac-toe and found yourself trapped? No matter where you make your mark, your opponent always has a chance at three in a row?

I imagine that’s how the Irish felt during their 74-64 loss to Tennessee Sunday night. No matter where it applied pressure on defense, it couldn’t stem the Lady Vols’ offensive flow.

The simpleton could attribute Tennessee’s performance to Lady Vols forward Candace Parker, who ripped through Notre Dame’s defense like the tornadoes that swirled around Oklahoma City during the game. She tied a career high with 34 points and had 13 boards, four blocks, three assists and three steals. And without a doubt, Parker’s stat line reigned supreme in determining the outcome.

At times, however, it was what Parker didn’t do that boosted Tennessee above the Irish, and that’s how Notre Dame found itself in a three-way Catch-22.

The Lady Vols have scorers all over the floor. Against Notre Dame’s zone defense, they put Parker on the post, center Nicky Anosike at the top of the key and guards Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt out on the perimeter. Cover the wings and Anosike near the foul line, and Parker gets the feed down low for the easy bucket – of which she got many.

“I did not feel like she could be stopped in there unless they wanted to double-team her,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “She did a great job of establishing position and finishing shots.”

Notre Dame had no one to match up with Parker 1-on-1 in the post. Parker, at 6-foot-4, has three inches on Irish forward Becca Bruszewski, who played the majority of the game in the post after center Erica Williamson ran into foul trouble. So rather than let her drop 60, the Irish would collapse on Parker and leave Anosike open at the free throw line. Instead of forcing the shot, Parker would dish to Anosike, who would sink the 15-foot jumper. She finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she switched from the 2-3 zone to the 1-3-1 zone to limit Anosike’s effectiveness from the key, but Anosike kept making the shots.

“We were giving them to her at the beginning of the game, and then she started making them and I thought, we’re gonna have to change defenses to be able to guard her at the high post, and so I went to the 1-3-1 for that,” McGraw said.

The 1-3-1 zone, McGraw said, had the drawback of leaving a smaller defender at the low post to deal with Parker. McGraw recognized the relative futility of planning to stop Parker in the post.

“Parker, she’s gonna score no matter what defense you’re in when she’s on the block,” McGraw said. “She’s a tough match-up inside with her size.”

Guard Parker, Anosike sinks the jumper. Double Anosike, Parker owns a smaller defender.

What to do? Double them both? Shut down the two main scorers? In the first half, that was a sound option (Parker and Anosike combined for 24 of Tennessee’s 31 first-half points.) But in the second half, when Bobbitt and Bjorklund started hitting threes? That’s a bold strategy, Cotton.

Tennessee’s ball movement was too quick for the Irish guards, who had either stepped inside to lend a hand in taming Parker or collapsed on Anosike at the top of the key, to get outside and get a hand in the shooter’s face.

The irony is, Notre Dame’s offense played well against a bigger, more athletic Tennessee team. Four players scored double figures. Bruszewski tied a career high with 16 points. Guard Lindsay Schrader had 13 points and nine rebounds. The stats are similar between the two teams. Tennessee had 45 boards to Notre Dame’s 42. The Irish shot 39.7-percent on the game; Tennessee hit an even 40-percent.

But the reason the Lady Vols advance to face Texas A&M and Notre Dame heads home lies in the versatility of Tennessee’s offense. The Lady Vols played like a Hydra – cut off one source of points, and two more quickly appear in its place.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bill Brink at wbrink@nd.edu