It seems like a decade ago when University of Washington coach Tia Jackson suggested that defense is their signature after a 64-46 win against Eastern Washington University at the Husky Classic.
"It’s important that we capitalize on our aggressive defense – which is kinda what our signature is," said Jackson after the EWU game and only two days before a first ever loss to Sacramento State University on their home court.
Despite the claims that defense was their "signature", to that point there was little proof that their defense would actually yield results in the form of what counts: wins. The biggest problem was rebounding.
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However, while they may pride themselves on their defense, their rebounding struggles may be undermining their ability to define themselves defensively.
Although they are second among Pac-10 teams in steals averaging 11.8 per game, they are last in the conference in rebounding margin, offensive rebounds, and defensive rebounding percentage as well as 9th in offensive rebounding percentage.
For all their focus on holding teams defensively, they have not yet been able to keep them off the boards effectively, allowing even the undersized Sacramento State -- a team that does not start a player over 6’0" – to grab 43% of the available offensive rebounds.
As senior guard Sami Whitcomb said prior to last Thursday's game against Arizona State University, it's a troubling problem because there are plenty of times -- against teams like Sacramento State, for example -- where it seems like they should have gotten the job done on the glass and just didn't. They knew coming into their games against the two Pac-10 representatives from Arizona that they had to do something about it.
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However, the problem UW continues to face as Arizona State comes to town is their rebounding.
"I think that’s been our sort of problem this whole year," said Whitcomb of how they are approaching an ASU team that is one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the conference. "I mean I feel like we have the size and we definitely should be taking care of getting those rebounds, but it’s just been one of our issues whether it’s been getting the box outs or whatever. So we definitely need to make that a focus.
"Arizona has Ify Ibekwe who’s a great rebounder -- I know in the past she’s led the Pac-10. And Arizona State as a team collectively has always been known to rebound the ball really well and be very aggressive on the boards. So that’s something that I think will make or break us this week at home. And we’ll definitely look to have it be what makes us."
So heading into a two-game homestand -- facing a strong rebounding Arizona State University team and an University of Arizona team with one of the top individual rebounders in the Pac-10 -- it seemed like the Huskies might have been facing an unfortunate convergence of facing teams with strengths to exploit one's biggest weaknesses.
However, the nearly 4,000 fans that showed up at to see Washington beat Arizona 69-59 on Saturday witnessed them complete the first home sweep of the Arizona schools since 2002 behind one of their strongest defensive efforts of the season.
"Wow – I am so proud of this team," said Jackson after their 62-56 win against Arizona State last Thursday. "I mean they came out and more times than not just executed everything defensively that we wanted. As many of you know, I’m a defensive coach and the change ups that we made during the game the team just executed dang near to perfection."
Nevertheless, Washington has not won three in a row and begun conference play at 3-1 merely because of a strict adherence to Jackson's directives or rigidly executing a game plan. What's most impressive about their start to Pac-10 play is that there's a new energy about this team -- they are finally playing together as a unit.
"It just seems like from the Oregon State game till now, something’s clicked, there’s energy, and we’re fired up," said guard Kristi Kingma -- who's also experiencing a personal emergence over the last three games -- after the Arizona win. "It’s awesome."
So what exactly is clicking that has allowed them to play defense "dang near to perfection"?
1. Rebounding -- and limiting opponents rebounding -- is improving
As Whitcomb said, rebounding was probably the thing that would make or break Washington against the Arizona schools and they managed to do much better on that front.
"They get 17 [offensive rebounds] and they got 11 today and I was excited," said Jackson after the ASU victory. "I said that to the team. we wanted to outrebound them today and that’s been one of our bug-a-boos. And I think at half they had three – I mentioned it to the team. So boxing out was huge – huge, huge, huge. And they still kept coming and we still kept trying to find a way to get a body on ‘em. And again the kids did very well."
Indeed rebounding -- particularly keeping opposing players off the offensive boards -- is something they seemed to improve upon this past weekend.
During non-conference play, Washington's biggest weakness was their offensive rebounding differential -- they only grabbed 34.16% of the available offensive rebounds compared to their opponents who snatched 38.38% against them. While Arizona broke even at 34.50%, Arizona State had an offensive rebounding percentage 43.58% while holding opponents to 27.83%.
This weekend, Washington managed to turn that around, at least against ASU.
As Jackson described, UW held ASU below their normal offensive rebounding production. However they also managed to outrebound them on the boards: ASU had an offensive rebounding percentage of about 35% compared to UW's 38%.
Against Arizona, UW had a bit of let-up, allowing UA to get 40% of the available offensive rebounds compared to their 38%. However, defense is obviously about more than rebounding and certainly more than limiting offensive rebounding alone. So although they didn't rebound quite as well against Arizona, they were still able to compensate defensively in other ways that perhaps didn't show up in the box score, but do show up in the words of their opponents.
2. "We just wanted to throw ‘em off."
What makes defense hard to evaluate is that it's difficult to quantify.
Of course, it's nice when you can point to one number like offensive rebounding percentage or turnover margin (UW did in fact win the turnover margin in the second half against Arizona 4-11, turning the ball over on 11.11% of their possessions compared to Arizona's second half turnover percentage of 29.25%).
However, what UW did so well in both games this weekend is take their opponents out of what they wanted to do, something that is most readily evident through observation.
We just wanted to throw ‘em off," said Jackson after the ASU game, in which they managed to frustrate leading scorer guard Danielle Orsillo into 2-8 shooting for a modest 4 points, not even allowing her a free throw attempt. "And they’re very, very good at penetrating and we had to really contain that."
Although there is probably a combination of statistics that could be used to reinforce Jackson's assessment, the best evidence of the effect of their defense is the comments from opposing coaches and players.
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When UW switched to zone defense to try to stop ASU’s post players – a situation in which discipline is even more important – it got worse. As a team that is 9th in the Pac-10 in 3 point percentage, they were unable to stretch the zone allowing UW to play off shooters and swarm post players, both contesting shots and limiting ASU’s offensive rebounding strength.
Worst of all from a coach’s perspective, during that second half stretch they were doing things they were explicitly told not to do.
"We don’t wanna shoot off the first pass," said Turner Thorne. "We don’t wanna drive the baseline of a zone off the first pass. We were doing things that we absolutely positively say, ‘You are not allowed to do.’ So this team is talented enough to win its conference, but they have to be more focused."
Arizona freshman guard Davellyn Whyte expressed a similar sentiment.
"We kinda got a little casual on offense, said Whyte. "We weren’t really running out sets all the way through so it was kinda like one shot and done. We weren’t crashing the boards. And they just capitalized on our points that we didn’t score."
"It wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before – it’s just a matter of being able to make plays."
However, considering that both teams were taken out of what they wanted to do in one way or another and in Arizona's case, were forced into more turnovers when Washington turned up the defensive intensity in the second half, it's hard not to attribute at least part of that to Washington's defense.
Part of what allowed Washington to throw their opponents off was that they constantly shifted what they were doing, not allowing their opponents to adjust to any one defensive approach.
"About a third of the way through the second half we wanted to mix it up defensively," said Jackson. "We know they have her in the backcourt who’s a little more inexperienced, so we wanted to some zone and go some man, switch some, not switch some. And it just threw them off."
For Arizona, being thrown off had dire consequences -- they went nearly 15 minutes in the second half without a field goal before Whyte hit a jumper with less than a minute left. However it was too little, much too late as Washington had already gone on an extended 17-2 run. Jackson also attributed the run to Washington's defensive effort.
"Defense man, absolutely," said Jackson of what happened during the run. "I think Kristi was in the game with Christina, Charmaine...with Mollie in the game. They were relentless in our full court press and just created a lot of things. She created a turnover at the front of the press. It was wonderful. So a lot of the credit goes to not – we couldn’t make a basket: we shot 33% -- so our defense really created some opportunities for us."
With Williams harassing the inbounder jumping up and down and the Huskies mixing aggressive zone press, with man, with light pressure, it was hard for Arizona to find any sort of rhythm -- every time Arizona changed, Washington changed as well.
Yet not everything was perfect on every play and their response to a defensive mix up on one of the biggest plays of the game probably provides for the biggest statement about Washington's defense.
3. Having each other's back when things break down
Consistent with the old cliche that the coach cannot actually suit up and play the game themselves -- even when the team is decimated with injuries to the extent Washington has been this season -- there are times when a team has to figure out a problem themselves.
Successful teams don't simply do what they want to do on every play, but they also figure out how to respond with an adapted plan when things don't go exactly as planned.
When senior center Laura McLellan was asked about a play with 8:17 left in the second half in which she blocked Whyte's driving shot into the crowd, she perfectly accentuated what it means to respond in the moment to rapidly changing circumstances as a team.
"I think on that possession we were trying to jam and I think I missed my assignment, that’s what put me in position to help – I was supposed to jam and let my teammate go under," said McLellan of the play against Arizona. "And we have each other’s back – I messed up on my assignment so Sami got stuck, a couple of us got stuck. So I saw her girl driving and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s kinda funny cause if I had done what I was supposed to I woulda been there."
And yet in addition to energizing the crowd, the play represents the fact that instead of falling apart when things don't go as planned, this unit is adapting.
Although that block was a huge play that constitutes content for an easy highlight, it was a play about a minute later that really shows how well the unit is playing -- the crowd once again reached one of its loudest points in the game when Arizona's shot clock ran down to about 2 seconds with 6:44 left after running off about half the clock just fighting through UW's press.
The combination of running half of the clock down before even allowing Arizona to initiate their set and then holding them in the half court is a testament to the quality of UW's defensive play at this point in the season.
It's also a change, not only from last year, but from even from the end of 2009.
"It’s been so great," said Kingma about their early success in the Pac-10. "Like last year – it was really weird last season. We had a tough time and it was not fun being at the end of those games going into the locker room. And we just compete really hard. And I don’t know if the fans know it or whatever, but as a team we just like to go out there and we compete so much harder. We’re more disciplined, we know what it takes to win."