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Women's Basketball | The defense that launched a contender

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 14:02


Late in the second half of a vital matchup against Amherst College, Tufts found itself needing a defensive stop.

The Lord Jeffs’ star senior guard Marcia Voigt, had the ball, guarded by Tufts junior Liz Moynihan. Voigt moved to her left, handing the ball off to freshman Haley Zwecker while attempting to set a screen on her defender, freshman Kelsey Morehead. Morehead and Moynihan seamlessly moved through the attempted pick, each quickly squaring up their man once more.

Amherst wasn’t done. Senior forward Megan Robertson came out to set a second pick on Morehead, this time taking her out of the play. Zwecker, seeing her chance, drove the lane. But sophomore Hayley Kanner, who had been guarding Robertson, never flinched and immediately left Robertson to shift onto Zwecker. At the same time, senior co−captain Bre Dufault took a step into the lane to force Zwecker to alter her drive.

The Lord Jeffs guard got a shot off, but Kanner was easily able to slam it off the backboard for her third block of the night. Senior co−captain Kate Barnosky crashed the boards for the rebound, and the Jumbos had their stop, with every player on the court chipping in.

Man−to−man defense is one of the simplest and most complex strategies in all of sports. The concept couldn’t be more basic: Pick a man, and cover them anywhere they go. But that’s only on the surface. Any minor misstep, from not communicating on a screen to not leaving a man to provide help, can lead to easy, high−percentage attempts for the offense. The chess of basketball takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

“You can just play your man, that’s fine, but it’s a matter of how aggressive and intense you need to be to do it well,” Tufts coach Carla Berube said. “It’s how much talking is involved in great man−to−man defense, how important confidence in your teammates is.”

Berube may not quite be a grandmaster of the man defense, but she’s pretty close. After a lifetime of familiarity, dating all the way back before her days as a talented guard under Geno Auriemma at UConn, there was little doubt that it would be at the heart of what she did as a head coach, and it is now at the heart of the top−scoring defense in all of Div. III.

“It’s all I played in high school and college. In college we played a little bit of a 2−3 zone, but that was when we were up by a lot,” Berube said. “So it’s what I learned.”

The man defense run by Tufts is a high−pressure look that involves a major component of help defense to work efficiently. With the knowledge that they have help behind them, defenders can more aggressively guard their men. In order to be able to provide help defense, there are predetermined rules for how the defense rotates in different situations.

“From your position on the court, you know where your next rotation is,” Berube said. “If a player drives baseline, you know who is help, and you know where to go. Everyone needs to know where the next spot needs to be.”

Of course, a simple series of rotations won’t just magically create a great defense. The players on the court need to be able to adjust and improvise when things don’t go perfectly according to plan.

Kanner, who at 6−foot−2 is the tallest player Tufts has had in quite some time, has been an impact player on the defensive end since she was a freshman last year. She finished the season second in the NESCAC in blocks with 1.63 per game despite averaging only 16.2 minutes. This year, she is averaging 2.43 blocks per game, good enough for second in the conference and 26th in the nation.

But the complexities of the system require plenty of experience to enact it precisely time after time. Creating this level of comfort involves integration into it from the very beginning of a player’s time at Tufts.

“It’s definitely a process,” Kanner added. “She is brilliant with her strategy, and it was just a matter of how quickly you could pick it up. It’s concepts that aren’t that difficult that make a lot of sense once you realize how well they work.”

Early in the year, the focus is heavily on defense—to the point that Tufts will at times come out flat offensively, still working out the kinks of the facet of the game they’ve practiced less. In the opening weekend this season, Tufts scored just 50 points in one game and 46 in the other, two of their three lowest tallies all season, against a pair of teams that are barely breaking .500.

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