GVSU women’s basketball to rely on defense for deep playoff run

The Laker bench celebrates a three pointer during the game vs. Northwood inside the Fieldhouse Arena in Allendale on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

Kevin Sielaff

The Laker bench celebrates a three pointer during the game vs. Northwood inside the Fieldhouse Arena in Allendale on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017.

Josh Peick

Defense wins championships: the most overused phrase in sports. Last season, the defense of the Grand Valley State women’s basketball team took the Lakers all the way to the Final Four. This season, the Lakers own the second best defense in the nation, giving up only 52.3 points per game.

Ever since GVSU coach Mike Williams joined the program in the 2015-16 season, the Lakers have sported a strong unit on the defensive end of the floor.

Arriving from Davenport, Williams coached the Panthers to a pair of Final Four berths while he was at the helm. In the 2014-15 season, the Panthers allowed only 48.3 points per game, claiming the top defense in the nation.

The focus on defense proved to be an adjustment for some of the Lakers in Williams’ first season.

“He was way more of an active defensive coach than our last coach was,” said senior Piper Tucker. “It took us that full first semester to finally get it down, have our hands up and anticipate instead of waiting for things to happen. He definitely emphasizes the anticipation instead of a reaction.”

Once the players bought into the system, the defense worked like clockwork. In two seasons, GVSU has dropped its opponents’ points per game average by more than 10 points.

Williams’ defensive philosophy includes three components to having a successful defense.

“There are three things we try to do,” Williams said. “Number one, we don’t want to foul. We don’t want to put you on the free throw line.”

A prime example of this philosophy in action is when GVSU beat Saginaw Valley State at home earlier in the season. The Lakers held the Cardinals to only one free throw attempt all game, which coincides with the second defensive philosophy.

“Number two is, we try to take away what you like to do,” Williams said. “If you’re a penetrating team, we try to take away the penetrators. If you’re a post team, we try to take away the post.”

Heading into the matchup Saturday, Jan. 21, the Cardinals made and attempted the second most free throws in the GLIAC. SVSU’s Emily Wendling made the only free throw attempt that game on the back end of a three-point play.

In the Lakers’ second matchup with the Cardinals, the defense shut down SVSU’s best offensive weapon, Wendling. Wendling, a post player, scored only eight points that game. It marked only the third time she scored less than 10 points in a game this season.

The final component of the philosophy is the toughest for the players to buy into, but it is the most important.

“Finally, we want to be relentless on every possession until the end of every shot clock,” Williams said. “I think that’s the toughest thing to get players to do.”

The Lakers force 17.9 turnovers per game, some of which come from an expiring shot clock due to a tenacious defensive attack.

“The key to any defense is your heart and your effort, having everyone on board to get a stop,” said senior Taylor Lutz.

A coach can bring as much philosophy and ideas that he or she wants, but without the players buying in, the defense will not succeed. Luckily for GVSU, the players have bought into Williams’ defensive system.

The Lakers returned two GLIAC All-Defensive Team members in Lutz and Kayla Dawson, but midway through the season Dawson exited the lineup with a broken wrist.

“It’s made us guard a little differently,” Williams said. “This year (Dawson) was really defending. If she was all-defense last year, she was playing better this year.”

In Dawson’s absence, a number of players have stepped up to fill the void she left behind.

“(Dawson) is a huge loss for our team, but everyone on our team is stepping up,” Lutz said. “We have a full team of girls that are willing to step up which is key.”

A vital part of the GVSU defense is the versatility it boasts. The shortest player on the team Janae Langs leads the team in rebounding while forwards Korynn Hincka and Tucker are often pitted against shooters to disrupt shots with their length.

“Sometimes we pigeon hole these players. Well you’re a post so you guard a post,” Williams said. “We move our players around a lot. In my opinion, athletes will do what you expect of them and these players are willing to do it.”

As the season has progressed, Tucker has defended out on the perimeter much more than in the past.

“Each game I’m getting more and more comfortable,” Tucker said. “For the past three years I’ve been down on the block with the big posts. Rarely have I been on the guards.”

Although she is now spending time shutting down guards, Tucker still competes and disrupts some of the top centers in the conference.

“She does whatever you ask her to do and she does it well,” Williams said. “I like her with whoever she guards. Certain players do really well, and then when she guards them, they don’t seem to do as well. In my opinion, she’s a special player.”

Whether posts are guarding out on the perimeter or the guards are snatching defensive rebounds, the Lakers will rely on their defense if they want to make another deep playoff run.