PARK, Pa. - The casual observer would most likely tell you that the Lady Lions
are beating people because of their offense, but if you have a conversation
with any of the Penn State players and coaches - or event their opponents -
they will tell you that defense is where their mindset is.
"We focus more on defense because we know it can lead to offense," said senior forward Mia Nickson. "When we create turnovers and force missed shots or quick shots we can get the ball quicker and run. Our defense helps our offense flow...we are just having a lot of fun."
Having fun is an understatement. The Nittany Lions are enjoying the best of both worlds through 15 games this season, leading the Big Ten in scoring offense at nearly 75 points per game and ranking fourth in the conference in scoring defense (57.5 ppg).
There was no change in coaching philosophy nor was there a secret team meeting that led to the change, it just kind of happened. The Lady Lions are taking more pride in holding teams off the scoreboard and continue to get more comfortable with the system each day.
"This team is a strong offensive team and they were all recruited as offensive players," said Washington, "but we like to remind them that there is another end of the floor, too. They paid a lot of attention to defense entering this year. We were certainly a little more explosive offensively last year, but what is exciting about this team is that our defense is creating more opportunities for us on the offensive end."
Adding a player like Dara Taylor doesn't hurt, though. Taylor sat out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations, but watched and soaked up the defensive schemes that most of her teammates had been working on for two years. The speedy guard didn't mesh immediately, but with more reps on the court she has adapted nicely to playing with the veterans and has become one of the most feared defenders in the Big Ten.
Adding to Taylors impact on the floor is the fact that senior Alex Bentley doesn't have to run the point and guard the team's best player all while being one of the team's top offensive threats. Taylor, who can light it up offensively herself, filled the gap left by Zhaque Gray, who was the third leading scorer for PSU last season, and has already eclipsed her 2011-12 total for steals (27) with 35 swipes this season.
It hasn't just been the addition of Taylor. The defensive adjustment has been a total team effort and is a charge that the Lady Lions take to heart this season, according to junior guard Maggie Lucas.
"We take it personally," said Lucas. "Last year we knew that if you scored on us that we were going to go right back down the floor and score on you, but this year we take it a little more personally. It was a mentality thing; we want to lock people down on defense."
It's been like Folsum Prison out there on the floor compared to last season and the opposing offenses are at the mercy of a blue and white clad task force. Penn State has held eight opponents to less than 60 points this season through 15 games, compared to 13 such efforts all of last season. They have handcuffed the opposition under 50 points on five occasions, doing that only six times all of last year.
They are limiting the opposition to the second lowest field goal percentage in the Big Ten and the 24th best clip by a defense in the NCAA, while ranking among the national leaders in blocked shots (21st), steals (37th) and turnover margin (43rd).
It starts with the guards applying ball pressure, which leads to steals and breakout offensive opportunities, but it also has to do with limiting the opposition's chances. Penn State pulls down nearly 70 percent of their defensive rebound opportunities and their turnover margin of plus-four is the highest in the Big Ten, meaning they are not giving possessions away either.
Nickson knows that they will need to continue to improve all over the court, but also points out that if they can limit the looks that their opponents get and continue to play well defensively they will be a much more complete team as the season progresses.
"I think our defense is getting better," said Nickson, "but we have a lot of work to do still. We can always get better. We need to continue to take care of the boards and get the ball out in transition."
The sign of a good team is usually that they are never satisfied with their level of play and it's a scary thought for opponents that Nickson and her teammates think there is still a lot of work to do on the defensive end of the floor.