CALIFORNIA – Offense, especially the shooting part, puts the fun in basketball.
It can be creative, flashy and end up on the television highlight shows.
Defense? That’s the difficult part. It’s hard work with lots of sweat and floor burns.
But when played well …
“Defense wins championships,” says Kaitlynn Fratz, a junior guard for the California University women’s basketball team.
Against Indiana Wednesday night, defense won California a key PSAC West Division game and continued the Vulcans’ late-season surge.
California held IUP to 19 percent shooting in the first half, forced 21 turnovers and used some clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch to defeat the Crimson Hawks, 62-56, at the Convocation Center.
It was the fourth win in a row, and seventh in eight games, for Cal (9-4, 15-7), which is comfortably in third place in the division and currently playing some of the best basketball in the conference. The Vulcans knocked Edinboro out of first place in the West last Saturday night by holding the Fighting Scots to 55 points and rolling to a 25-point road win.
“This is the best basketball we’ve played all season,” says Cal third-year coach Jess Strom.
With many new players on the roster this season, including some who are playing more than casual roles, the Vulcans struggled on defense early in the season. It took time for Strom to convince the newcomers that defense isn’t a dirty word. Now, it seems an inadequate word. Only twice in the last 11 games has Cal allowed an opponent to score more than 67 points.
“Getting everyone to play team defense takes time. That’s only natural,” Strom said. “We had a lot of new kids in the program, and trying to get them to mesh defensively was rough. Everyone has learned their roles, though, and we’re hitting our stride.”
Against IUP (6-6, 15-7), there were a few missteps. California squandered a 10-point second-half lead and trailed by five points with eight minutes remaining.
The Crimson Hawks, who went more than 10 minutes – extending from the first half into the opening three minutes of the second half – changed their offensive strategy and began driving the ball to the basket with success. Point guard Talen Watson scored 15 of her 20 points in the second half, many coming on reckless drives through the Cal man-to-man defense.
IUP put together a 15-4 run, capped by a basket off an offensive rebound by Ashley Stoner, to take a 43-38 lead.
“Basketball is a game of runs and we understand that,” said Fratz, a transfer from Pitt-Johnstown, who led Cal with 20 points. “We know it’s not our offense that is going to carry us. Down five was tough. It came down to us trusting each other defensively. Defense is what we take pride in.”
Cal battled back on the strength of two key baskets by freshman point guard Miki Glenn and the Vulcans’ ability to get to the free-throw line. Cal made 20 of 25 free throws compared to IUP’s 10-for-15. The free-throw advantage, along with committing only nine turnovers, allowed the small Vulcans lineup to overcome shooting only 25 percent in the second half and getting hammered (47-29) on the boards.
Cal took the lead for good at 54-52 with 3:19 left after two free throws by Emma Mahady, who had 11 points. The Vulcans’ sticky defense held IUP without a field goal the rest of the way.
Down the stretch, Irina Kukolj (13 points) had a field goal and two free throws for Cal, and Fratz and Glenn each converted a pair of free throws.
“Defense is where we’ve stepped it up,” Strom said. “We’re going with small lineups and we’re trying to pressure more and force more turnovers, create empty possessions.”
Kukolj finished with 13 points, including a pair of three-pointers on Cal’s first two possessions. Leslie Stapleton scored 12 points for IUP and Stoner had 10.