As with any sporting event, there is definitely room for debate as to where this season's women's Final Four ranks among the best ever or how having a pair of two-seeds competing hurts or helps the game.
Those questions will certainly work themselves out over time, but for now we can say that at the very least that the Texas A&M Aggies' 76-70 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for their first-ever women's basketball title crossed the threshold of being all that one might want from a competition to earn the top spot in one's sport.
The big plays and playmakers that made that game great certainly took center stage, but it was a game that was going to come down to the performances of each team as a whole to begin with. That was probably the defining feature of what made this game great, if difficult for the mainstream to latch onto, but also possibly the single biggest determinant in TAMU's win and something that played a factor in both teams' path to the championship game.
"Gosh, we were so good on offense and shot 60-something percent," TAMU assistant coach Vic Schaefer said after the game. "But you think about the way they opened the second half and then you look at the stat line, they shot 36 percent.
"The telling tale, when you watch Texas A&M in the future, look how many assists the other team has and you can tell if we're doing our job. They had 14 one-on-one baskets tonight. They had 10 assists for 10 baskets. So 14 - in other words, they had to create their own stuff. And when people are having to create against our kids, our kids are doing their job."
Key statistic: TAMU holds Notre Dame to three second half assists
As Schaefer noted, the most significant statistical advantage that the Aggies established last night was their effective field goal percentage differential - they outshot Notre Dame 70.45% to 38.33% in the second half. That's an absolutely remarkable defensive shift when you consider how they started the second half, as written by Ray Floriani.
Part of the explanation for that differential was indeed ball movement - Notre Dame only had three second half assists and although they only committed a reasonable seven turnovers (any team that's only turning the ball over on 20.58% of their possessions against TAMU should be commended), anybody who has watched Schaefer's defensive schemes at work knows that trying to score one-on-one against TAMU is not necessarily a recipe for success.
"I thought we took a couple of really bad shots," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We probably had a turnover or so in there. But just really quick shots where we could have got something a little better...we kind of lost our poise, I thought, for just a minute there. And that was all it took."
Outside of those assisted field goals made, Notre Dame was 8-for-27 in the second half. Of course you can't disregard the possibility of "lost assists" and indeed Skylar Diggins made some beautiful passes throughout the game that set up players for good shots that just weren't converted. But Notre Dame's consistent 50% free throw rate in each half only reinforces the point that their balance of one-on-one to team play started to swing one-on-one in the second half.
But things become more stark when looking at Diggins' numbers.
Four of Notre Dame's 8 second hal field goals came on big one-on-one plays (and a three) by Diggins as well as two of those three assists. So another way to think about Notre Dame's production is that six of 11 field goals came as the result of Diggins, which is over 50% their scoring production. Add in Diggins' 6-for-7 free throw shooting (a strong free throw rate of 47.36%) and Diggins was responsible for 22 of 45 of the team's second half scoring opportunities (field goal attempts + free throw attempts).
The focal point here shouldn't necessarily be on whether Notre Dame can win with Diggins shouldering the burden for that much of the scoring load, although using 37.38% of the possessions while she was on the floor during the game is well above average. Ultimately, what this is about is that TAMU made Notre Dame into a one-dimensional team, which is something they probably couldn't afford against a defense like Texas A&M's.
And all of this is described by each team's synergy ratings.
Although I think Schaefer nicely described the conceptual value of synergy for his team, for more on what it means, see our statistics glossary or look at Gonzaga's synergy against UCLA. But looking at the synergy per half is illuminating:
|Team||1st Half||2nd Half||Final|
As a brief reminder, the formula for synergy is: Ast/FGM + eFG%
Prior to the game, I suggested that if both teams had below-average synergy games, Texas A&M would win. Although that it wasn't quite that simple, TAMU's second half synergy numbers really sum up what Schaeffer was talking about. But their offensive synergy was outstanding as well and for all of the talk about Tyra White's big shot, she was a major part of what kept this team fluid as well.
TAMU statistical MVP: White just makes plays, for herself and others
As impressive as Tyra White's huge 3-point shot with 1:04 left in the game was, she was subtly making simple plays throughout the second half that contributed to that high TAMU synergy. And that begins to explain why she turned up as the statistical MVP despite Adams leading the team with 30 points and being named Most Outstanding Player.
First, Model Estimated Value (used to determine these MVPs) places a high premium on players who shoot efficiently - in the most extreme terms, scoring 30 points on 12 shots (assuming the player picked up a bunch of points off of free throws) is better than scoring 30 on 22 shots as Adams did simply because missed shots are missed scoring opportunities. By no means did Adams have a bad game, but White's 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including the biggest 3-pointer of her life, helped her to an astounding game-high true shooting percentage of 80.35%.
Second, White was the team's most efficient distributor as well working a lethal two-player game with Adams in the post and White on the wing. With White as hot as she's been from mid-range or driving and Adams so dangerous inside, that's just a tough situation for any defense to guard.
White finished the game with an assist ratio of 23.25% and a team-low turnover ratio of 11.62% for a team-high pure point rating of 1.66. Colson's play at the point guard was clearly important to this team, but White's efficiency as an alternate distributor was also huge in setting up Adams late.
"We couldn't defend them like we've been doing all year," Notre Dame forward Devereaux Peters said. "White had a great game and Adams had a great game. We couldn't stop them."
Notre Dame statistical MVP: Peters comes up big offensively despite foul trouble
As James alluded to in his simulation preview of this game, had you played this game 100 times, you still might not have a decisive "better team" because of how well these two teams were matched up - each game a different variable might change the outcome.
Last night, one of those variables for Notre Dame was Peters, who wasn't able to defend Adams in the second half without fouling, which was one factor in TAMU's 72.27% free throw rate.
"We had a plan and we just weren't able to stop her," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw after the game. "We thought that was going to be a tough matchup for Becca (Bruszewski). Devereaux tried to guard her a little bit, but then the foul trouble was a problem. Natalie (Novosel) tried to guard her and then she got into foul trouble. She did a really good job of getting us in foul trouble."
Peters did finish with 21 points and 11 rebounds, including game-high defensive (15.92%) and offensive rebounding (15.01%) percentages but Adams was indeed the story in the post.
Key player: Adams' post dominance leads TAMU
However, there was more to Adams' post performance than her 30 points - although Notre Dame improved dramatically on the offensive glass in the second half, Adams also had four big defensive rebounds that helped keep Notre Dame's 9 to 7 second chance points advantage from being worse.
For all that Adams does that makes her such a strong WNBA prospect, the fact that among her big second half contributions over the past two games have been protecting the defensive glass speak volumes about what she means to this team.
"I had a little voice in my head that said, ‘Don't let this team down,'" Adams said after the game. "And my teammates, every time we would get down, we would tell each other, we're not going to lose this game...I just took the game over. I wasn't going to let my team lose. I mean, they've been everything for me, so I decided to take them on my back and just let them ride on my back."
Yet for all of that, to say that Adams is the heart and soul of this team would be to deny almost everything we know about them - this is a team that has had so many players come up big depending on the matchup, whether it be Adams, either (or both) of their two Sydneys, or Tyra White.
And on a night where Notre Dame was rendered almost one-dimensional for long stretches of the second half, indeed it was the best team effort that won last night's game, with each Aggies teammate filling their role to earn the right to call themselves the best in the nation.
"I thought this was going to be an uglier game and I was right on our part at the start of it," McGraw said when asked about the quality of the game. "But I think both teams really did a much better job as the game went on. So I thought both teams played hard defensively, and, yeah, I thought it was probably not so entertaining from my point of view, but I think from the fan's point of view it was probably a pretty entertaining game."
That was among the best showcases for women's basketball that we've seen this year, even if we could probably find better performances - individual and overall - elsewhere. While Adams drew the majority of the attention, it was outstanding play on both ends of the ball by the Aggies that won this game. Although some fans might not find that to be the most entertaining brand of basketball or some writers might find it harder to compose compelling storylines (I confess: analysis of team synergy is probably not the most compelling storyline), ultimately that game - and these two teams - showcased what can make a sport predicated on simply putting the ball in the basket more times than the opponent beautiful in its nuance.