TERRE HAUTE —
One of the principal ways coach Teri Moren and her assistants assess their team’s effectiveness in a game is not one that the casual fan would track.
The Indiana State women’s basketball staff wants to know how many times the ball is deflected when the Sycamores are playing defense.
“Part of the information we give them in timeouts is how many deflections they have, and then at halftime we talk about it again,” Moren said recently. “We want 30 deflections. Taylor [Whitley] had a game with 15. Natasha [Zurek] had a game with nine at halftime, which is tremendous. Those are things that get our kids excited, gives them something to think about and they take a lot of pride in.”
Whitley, ISU’s lone senior, is among the many Sycamores translating those into steals. She leads all Missouri Valley Conference players with 30 steals and 3.3 per game.
Zurek and freshman Kasey Johnson also ranked in the top 15 in the league through the weekend at 15 and 12 respectively as the Sycamores lead all MVC teams with an average of 11.4 per game.
It is a team effort, as Jessica Valley (1.1 per game), Travecia Franklin (1.2 per game), Anna Munn (1.2 per game) and Racheal Mahan are all getting at least one steal a game.
“That started with Whitley. You’ve got a senior that is willing to get on the floor and get those 50/50 balls,” Moren said.
Whitley said the whole team has bought into what the coaching staff wants and it can be seen every day in practice.
“I would say we’ve definitely stepped up our defensive intensity to a whole new level this year,” Whitley said. “We’ve got some great athletes on our team that can get up in people and cause havoc on defense. We all have each other’s back. Always able to get up in your man. Ready to dive on the floor. Everyone has each other’s back.”
The Sycamores are a blue-collar team, make no mistake about it.
The Sycamores took a five-game winning streak into Tuesday night’s game in Hulman Center and the ability to get takeaways and turn them into baskets is a big reason why. ISU’s defense has been holding teams below their typical scoring ouputs and the Sycamores ranked 23rd in the NCAA in points allowed at 50.6 points per game.
A high-scoring Tennessee-Martin team put up 71 points on ISU in overtime, but the Sycamores held them to 34.8-percent shooting. The Sycamores’ 10 steals were their lowest output of late after they posted 19 and 18 in the two previous wins.
Valley said ISU began buying into the aggressive defense in the summer when the new coaching staff took over. Assistant coach Joey Wells was known for his work defensively at Lamar, where he was associate head coach.
“Coach Wells has really emphasized since the day he got here that we want to be high in the passing lanes to get deflections and that our defense should be a help defense,” Valley said. “We’ve improved so much from last year with the help of coach Wells and the coaching staff, with everybody buying into getting deflections and defense and steals. It’s been a real team effort.”
ISU freshman Kasey Johnson has had a steal in six straight games, including two three-steal performances. The freshman has been a big addition to the Sycamores with her ability to stop penetration.
“She’s the perfect athlete and can guard a lot of kids that might be quicker than her,” Moren said. “One of the things about Kasey is she loves challenges. So anytime you can challenge her, it drives her to play harder.”
Johnson said many of the younger players emulate how hard Whitley plays in practice. It’s not rare to see Pete Rose-style dives for balls by multiple players during practice.
“Everyone goes hard every day in practice,” Johnson said. “It’s always competitive. We’re always doing drills that are competitive. It’s always up-tempo and everyone’s always ready for practice. As a team, we’re coming together nicely and it’s showing in games.”
Between Johnson, Munn, Franklin, Valley, Zurek and Whitley on the perimeter, everyone is at least 5 feet, 9 inches tall with strength and quickness. Athletic ability helps, but Johnson credits the coaching staff for creating the new culture.
“I think a lot of that is the emphasis the coaching staff puts on deflections. We’re all being more aggressive and trying to get our hands on every basketball we can,” Johnson said. “I like the defense we play because we’re getting real aggressive in the passing lanes. Being in the lanes gives us a chance to get those deflections.”
Steals are definitely one means to an end of getting a stop. But forcing a missed shot and rebounding is suddenly another strength for ISU this season. ISU has more rebounds at both ends than its opponents so far this season.
Mahan is No. 1 in that area for ISU, but she’s getting a big boost from Valley, who has fully embraced being a do-the-dirty-work player for the Sycamores. The 5-9 sophomore had 10 rebounds Sunday to up her average to 6.0 for the season.
“My goals are to get deflections and rebound and try to draw charges and stuff like that,” Valley said. “We don’t need scoring from me. We have it from other people on the team. My scores will come from offensive rebounds, pushing [the ball].”