CLEVELAND -- We're courtside to provide instant analysis from the Final Four's first semifinal, between LSU and Rutgers:
HOW THE GAME WAS WON: This one really was decided in the first half. And luckily for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights were able to build an 18-point halftime lead, because they shot just 33 percent in the second half after hitting 43 percent of their field-goal attempts before the break.
When the game opened, it looked like LSU was willing to sag off and leave the perimeter open in order to take away Rutgers' penetration, specifically on stopping the dribble-drive of the Scarlet Knights' Matee Ajavon, Epiphanny Prince and Essence Carson. But the gamble didn't pay off. Rutgers, which came in averaging 4.9 3-pointers per game, hit 8-of-10 first-half 3-pointers, including two from Carson and a 4-for-4 effort from Ajavon. Rutgers finished 10-for-20 from long-range, hitting just two more in the second half, but the damage was already done.
When the season opened back in November, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said this was the worst defensive team in her tenure at the school, but the defense got the job done Sunday. From the start, the Scarlet Knights perplexed LSU, constantly throwing different defenses at the Lady Tigers and really committing to shutting down LSU star Sylvia Fowles, who mustered just two points and five field-goal attempts in the first half. It didn't help her cause that the Lady Tigers failed to set enough post-to-post screens for her, but even the greatest players are easier to guard when they're standing still.
This season, the 6-foot-6 junior center became the first player to tally a double-double in every SEC game, but she was held to five points, just her third single-digit scoring output of the season, on 2-for-10 shooting and seven rebounds. It has to be one of the worst games of her career after absolutely dominating the regionals.
Rutgers threw every defensive scheme at LSU. On one play midway through the second half, the Scarlet Knights were playing a 2-2-1 zone and then abruptly switched to a 2-3. LSU constantly took quick shots, never slowing down to identify the defense in front of it. LSU had too many possessions where the Lady Tigers made just one pass before throwing up a shot, finishing a dismal 26.4 percent from the field, about 18 percentage points below their average.
STAT OF THE GAME: LSU had no fast-break points in the game. Of course, as legendary coach Billie Moore, who’s sitting next to me on press row, noted, the Lady Tigers didn’t give themselves much chance for fast-break points. LSU missed 39 shots and gave up 12 offensive rebounds to the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers outrebounded LSU 44-33.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Ajavon led Rutgers in scoring but also was a great leader throughout the game. She knocked down shots when they were open and played tough when Carson went down with a leg cramp with 13:22 to play. Ajavon finished 6-for-12 from the field, 4-of-5 from downtown with four rebounds and four assists. Yes, she also had seven turnovers, but she made up for them elsewhere.
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE GAME: Fowles finished 2-for-10 from the field, 1-for-2 at the foul line and tallied seven rebounds (three offensive), four turnovers, two blocks and one steal to go with her five points.
PARTING SHOT: Acting LSU coach Bob Starkey deserves a lot of credit for everything he has achieved since taking over the program in mid-March right before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
And speaking of coaches, it certainly doesn’t hurt Rutgers to have two Hall of Famers on its bench (Stringer and assistant Marianne Stanley).
BIG EARLY STORY LINE: LSU started 1-for-10 from the field. A lot of that had to do with Rutgers' sagging man-to-man defense.
Rutgers gaveFowles no room inside, playing a post behind her and dropping sophomore Heather Zurich down low to front Fowles. Then, when LSU delivered an entry pass to the 6-foot-6 junior, four Rutgers bodies collapsed on her. That gave LSU's Ashley Thomas room on the perimeter, but she missed the open looks early on. Fowles scored LSU's first two points on a finger roll, but failed to hit her next three shots from close range in the game's first five minutes because of Rutgers' constant pressure. Fowles didn't attempt a shot again until the final 20 seconds of the half.
At the other end, the Scarlet Knights were getting great looks early on. They had great spacing on offense and were using their screens. They were also very patient with the ball, often making six or seven passes on a possession to shift LSU's defense. By the break, Rutgers had 10 assists on 13 field goals. That's how good the Scarlet Knights are moving the ball.
BIG MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Starkey should have called timeout earlier, at least when Rutgers had taken a 9-2 lead. Instead, he waited for the first TV timeout, with 15:04 to play. By that time, Rutgers had hit back-to-back 3-pointers and the Lady Tigers trailed 12-2. LSU was struggling on the offensive end, and Rutgers was on a roll. So Starkey needs to manage his timeouts and try to help his team stop Rutgers' runs.
He should have called a timeout again with two minutes to play in the half when Rutgers nailed another two straight treys, pushing the lead to 37-16.
PLAYER OF THE HALF: Rutgers' Carson was 5-for-11 in the first half and led the way with 15 points. Teammate Ajavon is another candidate, with 14 points, including nine from beyond the arc.
PLAY OF THE HALF: That had to be Fowles' block with 4:44 to play. On the fast break, Rutgers' Rashidat Junaid was going up for a layup on the left side of the basket when Fowles blocked the shot. Fowles was up so high her hand was over the rim when she got a hand on the shot and blocked it at the apex.
SMART PLAY OF THE HALF: Rutgers was especially successful running a UCLA stagger cut, almost always to the right side of the floor. After passing the ball to the wing, the guard -- either Ajavon or Carson -- goes off a high-post screen, then moves to the weak side off a double-staggered screen. That allowed Ajavon or Carson to curl off the screen or just pull up for a jumper.
SMART PLAY OF THE HALF, II: Coming out of a timeout with 3:11 to play, Rutgers went to its trademark 55 defense for the first time and LSU immediately turned over the ball. The Scarlet Knights usually only go into that defense on dead balls or made shots.
STATS OF THE HALF: Rutgers averages 4.9 3-pointers per game. But the Scarlet Knights hit eight in the first half, including three from Carson and a 4-for-4 effort from Ajavon.
Also, Fowles averages 17.2 points per game but had only two points at the break. LSU's 19 points matches its lowest-scoring output in a half this season. On Dec. 19, Louisiana Tech led 20-19 at the break.
Lastly, Rutgers' freshman Kia Vaughn averages 12.8 points but didn't take a single shot in the first 20 minutes.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.